The year-end wind-down means new legislative sessions are just around the corner. From early childhood and teacher pay to funding formulas and career readiness, there are many fights to be had, and advocates will invariably end up duking it out over their share from states’ coffers. While the impending bustle under the domes belies the feeling that our movement has become stuck in a rut, the lack of political appetite for big policy ideas nationally doesn’t mean state lawmakers aren’t still hungry.

Some of my friends have recommended a focus on evidence-based practice as a productive way to weather education’s policy winter, and I agree that there’s much to be said about cracking the code of what happens in classrooms across the country. But I’m not sure this is enough to whet the appetites within statehouses, where conservative groups have already started lining up to build upon the momentum from this summer’s Janus ruling. While the focus of these efforts is on boosting workers’ rights and lessening union influence, there could be a related opportunity here to tackle the thorny issue of collective bargaining.

A union keystone, collective bargaining is the process by which employees and employers negotiate the terms of employment, which often encompass a wide range of issues. It’s a relatively new phenomenon for teachers, over 60 percent of whom work under a union contract. I’ve previously enumerated the deleterious effects of collective bargaining, a process often veiled in secrecy. The media doesn’t cover it unless there’s a strike, and neither school districts nor local teachers associations have much incentive to encourage public involvement.

Collective bargaining is often overlooked within education reform; understandably so given its traditional place as a labor issue rather than one of education policy. But its impact upon education is undeniably widespread, especially when it comes to our students. From class size requirements to the number of hours in the school day, many policies that directly impact student success are codified in collective bargaining agreements or state law.

The best and most recent example of this impact was the strike at Chicago’s Acero Schools, the first of its kind of charter school employees in U.S. history. Union gumshoe Mike Antonucci deftly pointed out that unions see strikes like these as a means for survival. While the Acero deal included protections for students and immigrant families living in the country illegally, it also resulted in a shortened school year that falls in line with the district’s calendar, not to mention several days of cancelled classes for students.

In Denver, where I live, the local teachers association has historically demanded all sorts of things for inclusion in the master agreement, including a moratorium on charter school expansion. They’ve threatened to strike if a new contract isn’t signed next month. If they follow through, the impact on students and families will be significant. In a previous life as a district administrator, one of my many hats was as the liaison to the local bargaining unit where I experienced firsthand the straightjacket of work rules covering the gamut from curriculum and professional development to new positions and promotion policies.

Loosening up these restrictive contracts could take different forms. In 2011, I helped to overhaul the process in Indiana by limiting bargaining to wages and wage-related benefits and the length of any agreement to a budget biennium. Wisconsin also took action that year and required annual recertification for bargaining unit representation. In 2014, Colorado passed a ballot measure that requires collective bargaining to be conducted in public, something we contemplated doing in Indiana as well. The aim should be to alter the scope of collective bargaining and/or the process itself to safeguard only the most essential aspects, while eliminating anything that adversely impacts students and families.

I understand that plenty of people see all of this as an attack against labor, and that the need to rein in teachers unions is not a universally shared sentiment. Unions can and should play a more productive role in promoting excellence and rejecting mediocrity. Unfortunately, all signs indicate that they are becoming increasingly hardcore and militant. Their language post-Janus has been more conflict, not consensus.

Unlike many of the education-related pledges made on the campaign trail this year, collective bargaining reform wouldn’t require additional outlays. However, it does require statutory fixes and the courage to pick a fight. State-specific politics and leadership weigh in heavily, too. Our movement’s recent quarrels notwithstanding, curtailing the scope of collective bargaining is a sine qua non for empowering school leaders with real decision-making authority—an aspiration I often hear within our ranks.

Can reformers capitalize upon the Overton Window provided in Janus’s wake? It’s easy to talk a good game about expanding school autonomy and flexibility, but these words ring hollow if we ignore the state laws and policies that absolve school and district leaders from making hard decisions. Unless we get serious about collective bargaining reform, any effort—including a greater focus on practice—is likely to be short-circuited.

Dale Chu is currently an independent consultant on education programs and policy. His experience includes senior positions at the Indiana and Florida Departments of Education. During his service in Indiana, Dale helped to develop and implement all of the state’s key education reform initiatives ranging from educator effectiveness and school/district accountability to collective bargaining and school choice.


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