Elaborate collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) have for decades enshrined the “factory model” into public education. Negotiated by district boards and teachers’ unions, these lengthy contracts dictate numerous aspects of school life—anything from compensation to employee retention to lunch-room duties. In the early part of this decade, some states enacted reforms to CBA laws that limited what could be in these contracts in the hopes of providing greater flexibility to schools.

A new study led by Katharine Strunk, a leading expert on CBAs in the U.S., examines how legislative reforms in Michigan and Washington affected district CBAs. In 2011, Michigan passed sweeping changes to its CBA law that prohibited dozens of topics from negotiation, including things like teacher placement and transfers, classroom observation protocols, and disciplinary and dismissal procedures. Instead of being hamstrung by contract language, district leaders were given the discretion to make these HR decisions. Also around that same time, the Michigan legislature enacted statewide teacher evaluation policies, including the incorporation of student achievement measures. Washington’s reforms, on the other hand, were less extensive: Although legislators enacted a statewide teacher evaluation system in 2012—removing the issue from local bargaining—they did not adopt other reforms that narrowed its scope.

Common sense predicts that these reforms would reduce the restrictiveness of CBAs, thus providing greater flexibility. However, the researchers note that by eliminating some topics of negotiation, others could become more restrictive as they receive more attention at the bargaining table. To gauge changes in districts’ CBAs in Michigan and Washington, researchers examine eighty-eight topics of negotiation, both pre- and post-reform. They create measures for the overall restrictiveness of CBAs and in four subareas: association rights, teacher evaluation, teacher transfers, and leave policies. The CBA changes in Michigan and Washington are then compared to those in California, a state that did not undertake similar reforms. This provides stronger evidence on whether the reforms themselves led to changes in restrictiveness, though the researchers acknowledge that other non-observed factors could still play a role. Hence, they call their analyses “descriptive comparisons” of the pre- and post-reform CBAs in these two states.

Now to the results. Michigan CBAs became much less restrictive overall and in each of the four subareas. Washington CBAs also became less restrictive overall, though less so than in Michigan—not surprising given Washington’s less aggressive reforms. Interestingly, Washington CBAs became less restrictive in two areas (association rights and evaluation) but more restrictive in the others (leave and transfers). This suggests a tradeoff when eliminating topics of negotiation, as unions seem to have concentrated on winning stronger limitations in the areas in which they could still bargain. Due to the major changes in Michigan CBAs, the authors conclude: “It is in Michigan therefore that we might expect to see more substantial impacts on other district outcomes such as teacher staffing and ultimately student achievement.”

Two final thoughts: First, readers should peruse the laundry list of items that districts and unions haggle over in CBAs in the report’s Appendix Table 2. It’s yet another reminder of how much CBAs can constrict school operations and deployment of resources. Second—and this is for state lawmakers, especially those interested in deregulation—this study illustrates that, yes, you can make a difference.

SOURCE: Katharine O. Strunk, et al., Collective Bargaining and State-Level Reforms: Assessing Changes to the Restrictiveness of Collective Bargaining Agreements across Three States, CALDER Working Paper (December 2018).

Policy Priority:

Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

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