Sometime this spring Mayor Giuliani’s representatives will sit down with negotiators from the Board of Education and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to hammer out the next labor contract for the city’s 60,000 teachers. The mayor has said that he wants “a revolution” in the city’s highly centralized education system—a transformation whose key principle, according to mayoral education advisor Edward Costikyan, must be to move basic decision making from the wasteful, bureaucratic Board of Education down to the individual school that is responsible for teaching the students. The upcoming contract talks offer the mayor a unique opportunity to bring about exactly the revolution he seeks.

The union contract, with its byzantine and inflexible work rules, is one of the chief obstacles to creating a decentralized, results-oriented school system. In the upcoming negotiations, though, there is reason to think that the UFT could become an agent, rather than an opponent, of change. The union’s president, Sandra Feldman, has heard the message that the public is fed up with a failing school system. “You have a great deal of dissatisfaction with public schools, and a lot of it justifiable,” she says. “Therefore you have to make the public schools better.” The alternative bodes ill for her members. Says she: “If we don’t improve the schools, we are going to get vouchers—we are going to get a major dismantling of the public schools.”

Teachers are the soul of the educational enterprise. But New York’s current teachers’ contract seems to assume there’s no human intelligence within each of the city’s more than 1,000 schools capable of ordering productive working relationships among teachers, administrators, and parents. Instead, it imposes a single set of rigid work rules on every teacher and school.

Suppose the principal, parents, and teachers at a particular school want to experiment with a longer school day. No way, says the contract: “The school day for teachers serving in schools shall be 6 hours and 20 minutes.” What if the principal and the teachers decide it would be a good idea to get together once a week during a lunch period, send out for sandwiches, and discuss school issues? The contract has an answer: “Every elementary school teacher is to have a duty-free lunch period of 50 minutes.” The contract also micromanages such things as the number of lunchroom assignments teachers can be given, how many periods per week they teach (25), and how principals must assign teachers to classrooms and programs.

In the sections on in-school assignments, the contract language becomes truly baroque. Consider Article 7C2e:

“In order to make certain that teachers are not frozen into positions which are relatively easy or difficult, the following procedures should be adopted in making class assignments . . . on a particular grade level:

“(1) On each grade level, classes should be divided into two categories, difficult and less difficult, in terms of reading achievement. In general, a teacher who has been assigned to a class in one category for a period of one year should be assigned to the other category for the next year.”

In other words, the UFT has mandated the controversial policy of tracking children based on their reading level—not because the union believes the policy is in the best interests of children but because it’s convenient for teachers.

Lest anyone think the contract provisions are just boilerplate and don’t affect children, consider what happened last year at P.S. 145. For five years the fourth-grade gifted and talented class at this Manhattan elementary school had a beloved teacher named Mrs. Uhlman. But then another teacher in the school decided he wanted the job and invoked his seniority rights under the UFT contract. Parents and students protested; the principal said no; the district superintendent sided with the principal. No matter: the union backed the senior teacher and won a grievance that went all the way to the chancellor’s office. Mrs. Uhlman was removed from the class in the middle of the year, despite the threat of a parent boycott and an article in the New York Times describing her students in tears at the prospect of losing her.

As this story demonstrates, the current contract values seniority above all educational goals. The reverence for seniority lies at the heart of the contract’s single most damaging provision, the “seniority transfer plan,” under which 300 to 400 teachers move from one school to another every year. This plan requires principals to fill up to half their job openings with applicants from other schools, with hiring based exclusively on seniority. The receiving school’s principal doesn’t even have the right to interview the incoming UFT transfers. This rule defines jobs held by young teachers who haven’t received their final qualification as “openings,” so that more senior outsiders can unceremoniously displace energetic and often dedicated beginners.

Such rules can frustrate the best school reform efforts by undermining the leadership crucial to creating a good school. I spoke with the director who was trying to turn around a small alternative school in Manhattan and develop a challenging curriculum for its almost entirely minority student population. With a total of only 12 teachers, the school has been sent five UFT transfers in six years.

“You have no say when the UFT transfers come in, and then they are here for life,” the director says. “You are stuck with them until they decide to leave or retire. So you try to take action against the incompetent ones or those who do no work. You spend six months going to their classrooms and writing them up and then going to grievances with the UFT district representative. And then nothing happens anyway—so what’s the point? You just give up.”

What’s more, the transfer process creates perverse incentives for principals to turn the teacher evaluation system into a farce. Teachers are allowed to transfer out of schools only if they have not had an unsatisfactory rating from the principal. Thus, principals who want to encourage nonperforming teachers to transfer will give them satisfactory evaluations.

This process resembles a longshoremen’s hiring hall of the 1950s, with the worker who has the most years of seniority getting the plum job. The UFT transfers who come into schools often are not only unwanted but frequently become disruptive to the school program. With some exceptions they tend to be burned-out cases, having taught, on average, for 20 years.

As the father of two public school students, I have personally witnessed the disruption created by UFT transfers. One of the UFT transfers we took at P.S. 87, the school my children attended, looked like—and often behaved like—a derelict. Mostly he was assigned to monitor the school yard and lunchroom; hunched over and carrying a plastic shopping bag, he would wander around the yard in an apparent stupor. Parents who didn’t know who he was thought that a vagrant from the nearby streets had somehow managed to get into the yard. On the few occasions when he was allowed to stand up in front of a class, his odor made children physically ill.

Delegations of parents would go to the UFT’s district representative asking for help. They were told that our principal would have to “go through the process”—the same process that gave our derelict a satisfactory rating at his previous school. The “process” includes a teacher disciplinary system that is rigged in favor of incompetent teachers. In some years not one tenured teacher out of a workforce of more than 60,000 is dismissed for incompetence.

After four years the principal and some parents came up with a creative approach. They made sure that when Carl McCall, then president of the New York City Board of Education, visited our award-winning school, our UFT transfer would be teaching a class on McCall’s itinerary. McCall was stunned. Soon we heard that some phone calls had been made and our UFT transfer was persuaded to take a medical leave.

The UFT is the largest—some would say also the most powerful—labor union local in the country. It has more than 100,000 dues-paying members (including 60,000 active teachers) and a budget of over $30 million. It is so powerful that the union’s eight-story building at 260 Park Avenue South is as key a center of power in the governance of New York City’s school system as the Board of Education’s headquarters across the river at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn.

The central board and the union have squared off in some nasty battles during the past three decades. But at the same time, they have evolved a mutually convenient arrangement that protects their respective interests in an $8 billion education empire. One example of many: the redundant licensing requirements for teachers. They justify more bureaucracy at the central board, and they give senior teachers a further advantage over aspiring ones. Moreover, the licensing procedures create more jobs for union members, who administer the tests and teach courses required to earn a license.

Yet across the country as well as in New York, the movement within the public education system for giving parents real choice about their children’s education is steadily expanding. State legislation, innovative teacher union contracts, and privately funded school redesign projects have produced several reform models. Many states have enacted legislation authorizing charter schools that follow their own rules rather than those imposed by a district. In Chicago, councils of parents and teachers have the power to hire and fire principals and run neighborhood schools. The nonprofit New American Schools Design Corporation works with districts throughout the country to design autonomous schools. The Annenberg Foundation, a powerful force for school reform, will provide $500 million to create independent public schools in four cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The New York program will produce a network of 100 alternative schools.

Teachers’ unions now understand that they must accommodate, even champion, these reforms within the public school system in order to ward off the threat of vouchers, which, by ending the public school monopoly, could spell doom for teachers’ unions. Joan Buckley, the American Federation of Teachers official who coordinates the national union’s campaign against vouchers, recently told the union’s newspaper: “Hopefully, this [campaign] will buy the breathing room needed to allow the emergence of what ultimately will be the real solution to privatization, vouchers, tuition tax credits, and other dangers—genuine school reform.”

The contract signed last year in Boston illustrates just how far some teacher unions are willing to go. It is no mere public relations boast when Robert Pearlman, research director of the Boston Teachers Union, says the agreement “may well be the nation’s most innovative teachers’ contract in establishing an infrastructure for school-based reform.” Indeed, the contract is an inspiring model of how a collective bargaining agreement—without any changes in state law or regulations—can serve as the vehicle for radically transforming public school systems.

Right at the beginning there was something different about the Boston contract negotiations. The parties hired Conflict Management Inc., an outfit that has pioneered collaborative techniques of collective bargaining, to get the talks going. Before even discussing the details of the contract, the principal negotiators—the union, the school district, and the mayor’s office—hammered out a common educational philosophy, determining what structural changes were necessary in the organization of schools to improve the city’s education system.

The contract they wrote is a bracing read. In contrast with the New York contract—a crabbed, constricting document full of prohibitions and rigid procedures—the Boston contract is infused on almost every page with vision and openness to innovation.

It begins with a moving statement of commitment to change that honestly recognizes that the city’s public schools have not done well enough for the children. Then, under the heading “The Importance of School-Based Decision-Making,” the preamble states what is perhaps the key principle for any meaningful school reform: “Within the bounds of law and economic efficiency, decisions affecting the educational process and the delivery of services can and should be made at the local [school] level, with corresponding accountability for the result achieved.”

The Boston contract creates school site councils, with 50 percent parent representation and 50 percent staff representation, at every school. These councils have the power to “manage all matters that relate to the operation of the school, including . . . design and scheduling of the instructional program and curriculum . . . hiring of new staff and in-transfer of staff from other schools in the system and staff, assignment, including teaching and non-teaching duties.”

Almost every part of the contract reflects the conviction that the interests of children come before the interests of the adults who collect their paychecks in the school.

For example, a section titled “Scheduling and Teaching Load” states: “The teaching schedule and assignments of teachers shall be determined at the school level to meet the best interests of children.” Schools have great flexibility in determining the length of classes, class sizes, staffing levels, and schedules of teachers and students.

And the best may be yet to come in Boston. By September the contract will establish six revolutionary “pilot schools.” Run by community organizations, universities, or groups of parents and teachers, these will be organized like private schools, with two exceptions: they will be publicly funded, with a per-pupil budget allocation from the school district; and they will have to hire union teachers, paying them at least union wages. They will be free to augment some teachers’ salaries with merit pay and to experiment with lengthening the school day and the school year, which remains fixed by contract in other schools. And they can reconfigure in-school assignments of teachers in any way they choose.

These new schools are called pilots because the idea is to create more of them in time, says Ed Doherty, president of the Boston union. “When we go back to the bargaining table, we will try to improve on the initiatives. And certainly there is room to expand the number of these schools.”

I asked Doherty whether this wasn’t a revolutionary step for a union leader to take—allowing so many schools (6 percent of all Boston schools, the equivalent of 60 schools in New York) to remain outside the orbit of the union contract. “I don’t think we are less interested in protection,” he says. “But we are well aware of the allegation that union contracts are an obstacle to reform. We were trying to deal with that perception that we are the obstacle. And we realized that, when you have employees making the rules in their own schools, you don’t need the other kind of protections anymore. If we are really moving toward school-based management, then the need for hard and inflexible rules is gone.”

The Boston precedent casts a large shadow over the upcoming New York contract negotiations. Certainly Sandra Feldman is aware of its significance and of the other school reform initiatives around the country. In an interview the UFT president was defensive about the criticisms of the union for being an enemy of reform but was just as anxious to prove that the union was ready for a breakthrough. She and other leaders are “moving the union to a different place,” she says. And she cites the union’s support for the Annenberg Foundation’s network of small, autonomous schools.

“I think there should be choice within the public school system,” she says. “We know smaller schools work better, where adults know all the children’s names. And I think parents and teachers should have much more choice about what schools the kids get sent to and what schools they work in. . . . Can you imagine if you had teachers who decided on a particular school not because there is a certain population there but because there is a certain program that they want to try, an educational theory that they want to be involved in?”

Moving this very big and bureaucratic union to that “different place” is a hard sell. Back in the early sixties, when the UFT won the right of collective bargaining and negotiated its first contract, the union had to wrest protection for its members from a system that often treated teachers arbitrarily, somewhat like interchangeable factory workers. “We have a contract that was written out of a blue-collar ethos,” Feldman says. Until 1988, teachers had to punch a time clock when they arrived at or left school.

Nevertheless, Feldman maintains that the union had already taken significant steps toward meeting the demands for flexibility at the school level—for example, the School-Based Options clause in the contract, allowing union chapters at individual schools to ask for waivers from some aspects of the contract. Recently this clause has been extended to seniority transfers for some schools. But this is a very limited reform: a waiver requires ratification by three-fourths of a school’s union teachers and still higher levels of approval from the union hierarchy and the Board of Education. Feldman concedes that the procedures are too encumbered, too bureaucratic; she says the union was willing to go further.

Yet one might remain skeptical about the union’s readiness to let go. When the delegate assembly of the union endorsed the new plan to allow some schools to get waivers from seniority transfers, UFT vice president David Sherman told the delegates: “When it is done right . . . it provides a really good match of teachers and school”—but doing it right, he explained, means doing it “with the union in charge.”

Feldman insists, however, that the union is now ready to give schools the freedom they need to shape their individual educational programs. I asked her whether this might include transforming the entire hiring system—including transfers into schools—into a free labor market for all teachers. I even suggested a hypothetical arrangement in which the school system would post all vacant jobs, any teacher could apply for them, and principals or school site committees would select from among the applicants.

To my surprise, Feldman says she would not oppose this in principle. She also says that she is aware of the advantages of collaborative bargaining and that the union would be willing to bring in an outside facilitator like Conflict Management Inc. for the upcoming contract talks. “The School-Based Option is just the beginning,” she notes. “I want to see a constituency of my members who are in favor [of school-based reforms]. The more you get teachers involved in small schools, in modified transfer plans, the more the constituency grows in the union for those kinds of arrangements.”

So which is it? Is the UFT primed for an historic leap toward a new covenant for public education that recognizes each individual school as a unique community? Or is the union fighting a rearguard action, paying lip service to reform while using the existing contract’s labyrinthine grievance machinery to frustrate efforts to liberate schools from rigid work rules?

The answer, probably, is a little of both. Leaders with a national perspective, like Sandra Feldman, are no doubt serious about wanting to see the union play a vanguard role in school-based reforms. But just as surely, mid-level union officials and many older union members are frightened by the prospect of individual schools making personnel decisions without regard to seniority or work rules.

Many union officials understand that if such reforms occur, teachers could shift their loyalties from the citywide union toward a particular school. They would be giving up collective rights for individual autonomy and professional accountability. It’s a trade-off that would be profoundly beneficial for teachers who strive for excellence and just as profoundly threatening for mediocre time-servers. No wonder the union seems at odds with itself.

Yet surely the union could be nudged in the right direction during the upcoming contract negotiations. City hall should take Feldman at her word and propose a collaborative negotiation aimed at clearing away obstacles to creating autonomous schools. After Boston it’s no mystery how to achieve such a transformation.

Like the Boston Teachers Union, the UFT should turn its contract into a charter for a different kind of system—one that vests power in teachers, principals, and parents. Most important, the new contract should include three basic reforms.

It should eliminate seniority transfers.

It should establish, at every school, a council composed of an equal number of parents and teachers. With the principal’s leadership, the council should have great flexibility in managing the school’s budget and developing an educational philosophy suited to its particular student body. With a supermajority vote of its faculty, the school should be able to get waivers from most remaining board regulations and union work rules. However, the Board of Education or a similar agency must hold the council and the principal accountable for the school’s performance.

The contract should authorize the creation of a few Boston-style pilot schools that contract with the central board for their budgets but operate outside the day-to-day regulation of the board or the union contract. As in Boston, these schools should be free to experiment with the length of the school day and school year, teachers’ salaries, and licensing requirements.

Not long ago such changes would have seemed politically impossible. Now, given the union leadership’s public support for reform, the public’s support for a decentralized school system, the example of the Boston contract, and the Giuliani administration’s successful track record in labor negotiations, these reforms are entirely realistic. And they could provide the impetus to restructure the Board of Education itself.

The upcoming contract talks could achieve a major breakthrough toward reinventing New York’s failing $8 billion educational system. Every parent in the city would cheer.


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