Collective Bargaining in Schools: a Prescription for Problems

Joseph Ocol — booted from teacher’s union

by Chris Braunlich

Joseph Ocol is the kind of teacher most parents would fight to have teach their daughter.

His Englewood, Chicago, girls’ chess team won the national championship in 2016 against 60 other schools, an achievement noted in the Congressional Record, by news media and by the mayor and city council. And the girls have gone back since then, placing 4th last year.

But back in 2016, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on a one-day strike and Ocol made the decision that, if they were to have a chance at winning, his chess team couldn’t afford to take a day off from training. So Ocol skipped the strike to coach his kids.

For his efforts, the teachers’ union threw Ocol out. CTU simply put union needs above the needs of children from a community in which 45% are below the poverty line. Those who strayed from the party line were to be punished.

There are lessons in this for Virginia. Those looking at the notion of “collective bargaining” with a gauzy vision of teachers and administrators sitting down and singing “kumbaya” will be in for a rude awakening.

Because the reality is significantly different. And with legislation under consideration in the General Assembly allowing for public employee collective bargaining (funny how the General Assembly excluded their own employees), Virginians need to know what they are in for – particularly in the field of education.

In testimony before the House Labor and Commerce Committee (the Senate Committee did not want any public comment), Virginia School Boards Association lobbyist Stacy Haney cited numerous studies linking collective bargaining with a negative impact on student achievement, particularly on minority and disadvantaged students. A 2019 study published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy demonstrates that teacher collective bargaining has negative effects on long-run student outcomes, particularly for black and Hispanic males.

Ms. Haney also cited a 2018 study published in the Economics of Education Review, noting that the study associates “collective bargaining with lower overall student achievement and also ‘with greater proportions of students scoring at the bottom of the performance distribution and smaller proportions scoring at the top tail of the distribution. These relationships are particularly strong for subgroups of traditionally disadvantaged students …'”

In short: collective bargaining is bad for struggling and low-income students.

Why is that? A good part of the reason is that collective bargaining agreements don’t just govern teacher pay. They frequently determine length of the school day, the school calendar, class size, and after-school hours. If it isn’t in the contract, a teacher or supervisor can’t do it. And these are the things that affect classroom learning.

Those contracts also set the terms for salary increases and discipline, limiting the ability to reward quality teaching (“seniority only!”) or remove ineffective teachers. Do you remember reading about New York City’s “rubber rooms?”  The ones where ineffective or dangerous teachers were sent away from children to play games on their phones, salaries paid by taxpayers, while the city spent years in disciplinary action to remove them? That was a consequence of the collective bargaining contract.

This is not confined to huge systems like New York City. In Providence, Rhode Island, public schools — about the size of Richmond and smaller than 12 Virginia school systems — the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy analyzed the system’s devastatingly low student performance and sent teams to conduct interviews throughout the city.

Among its conclusions: “Of all the issues raised across all interviews, the (Collective Bargaining Agreement) hiring policies came in for the greatest critique,” noting that “it was next to impossible to remove bad teachers from schools or find funding for more than the one day of contractual professional development per year.”

The team was told by teachers … that the inability of a school to fire the weakest teachers was a real problem, because there were teachers who “just weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing.” One principal reported still going to hearings about a teacher who had finally been put on administrative leave for repeated, inappropriate physical contact with children. The teacher is still on the roster and is still paid.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement hurt students. But it also hurt effective teachers seeking to do right by the children they teach.

This comes as no surprise to those of us who grew up in collective bargaining states. When the teachers union becomes the legally protected and exclusive bargaining agent and when funds are tight, the priority is building dues-paying membership (more teachers rather than professional development; protecting the teachers you have regardless of competence) instead of building a quality workforce or removing barriers to children receiving the education that best suits their needs.

If the collective bargaining agreements working their way through the General Assembly continue unfettered, Virginians are about to learn what that means for their children.

Or they could just ask Joseph Ocol.

Chris Braunlich, a former president of the Virginia State Board of Education, is president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. This column was originally published in the Fredericksburg Free  Lance-Star.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

6 responses to “Collective Bargaining in Schools: a Prescription for Problems

  1. A fine and accurate article indeed.

    And here, like everything else in life, the proof is in the pudding – the great decline in public school education began in earnest in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the rise of politicized public school teachers unions.

    I remember that rise very well as several members of my law represented National Educational Association (NEA) at this time of great upheaval. This rise of unionized public school teachers mirrored the rise of public employee unions generally and the start of the ongoing collapse of elite higher education, along with the explosion of the Administrative State, all part of Lyndon Johnson’s (LBJ) toxic legacy.

  2. I’m not a “union no matter what” person and I agree that some do negative things as this shows. However, I have friends in other states who do have access to collective bargaining for educators. There are some real benefits to workers. Through the years when we’ve discussed challenges in our workplaces, my colleagues have usually had more ways to be heard, get good outcomes for teachers and students, and have achieved better outcomes than Virginia educators.

    No system is perfect. Virginia has a long tradition of only looking at the negatives of unions, especially since the coal and air control unions were effectively broken. We’ve fallen into the pattern of allowing no entre for workers – claiming that they only way is to let businesses dominate.

    Somehow we need to find win-win’s for both businesses and workers. Demonizing all unions in all situations isn’t going to move us forward. Maybe unions aren’t the answer but we haven’t found another tool and all of us benefit from things like the 40 hour work week that we wouldn’t have without unions.

    • The VEA was a bunch of left wing political bullies 40 years ago, when My Favorite Teacher had her fill and quit (getting an angry phone call from no less than Mary Futrell). Given a stronger base, and official recognition, they will certainly be effective advocates for higher pay and better working conditions, but that won’t really help the kids learn. It is not just that our society doesn’t value teachers, our society doesn’t even value education. Never in the history of the world have opportunities been better, and huge swaths of young people simply don’t take advantage. They do overseas! Practice your Mandarin.

  3. In my 27 year career I have paid a little over $16,000 in dues to the Loudoun Ed Association/VEA/NEA. I already know what people are going to say. 50 bucks a month to LEA was necessary to protect me from the nuttiness of the education world. LEA has a working relationship with superintendent and school board. The other teacher clubs that offer insurance don’t have that relationship. This group really did not represent my generation of teachers very well. Somehow we were always passed over for significant raises, money to political candidates were rarely my choice, and the overall long term vision for education was one that I did not share. Keep collective bargaining out of education. It will not serve the long term interests of the public, students, parents, and even teachers. LEA/VEA/NEA will ultimately serve themselves.

  4. Steve says: “It is not just that our society doesn’t value teachers, our society doesn’t even value education.”

    Truer words were never written down. I am appalled at Alumni Associations in American Higher Education institutions, including the elite institutions. Best I can tell all they care about is football, basketball, and tailgate parties. As to K – 12 schools, I will never forget the empty stands behind inner city high school teams playing affluent private school teams whose stands overflowed.

    To steal Steve’s line, let me also add:

    “It is not just that our society doesn’t value mothers and fathers, our society doesn’t even value families, not even the very affluent who value them only for their kids.”

    Think about how government has so grossly failed today’s middle class families by driving prices through the roof in what these middle class families need most to survive:

    1. Transportation,
    2. Housing,
    3. Energy
    4. Health Care.

    A recent study found that 6 decades ago a typical middle class man had to work 31 weeks a year to provide his nuclear family (himself, wife and children) with these four critically needed ingredients.

    And that today, in sharp contrast both middle class mom and dad have to work 53 weeks a year to provide their nuclear family (mom, dad, and children) with these four critically needed ingredients. Problem is there are only 52 weeks in a week.

    Now, think for a moment, how Virginia’s government is working so hard to continue its drive to run up ever higher the costs of transportation, energy, housing, and health care for middle class families, while also driving up their taxes, fees, and charges, while also driving down the quality of these 4 vital ingredients to family formation and health.

    Virginia’s government and its elite is at war against Virginia’s middle class families, while Virginia’s government and elite steal from these families to grossly enrich themselves.

    • And, of course it is far worse than Steve says: “It is not just that our society doesn’t value teachers, our society doesn’t even value education.”

      Why is it far worse? Virginia’s government and its public higher education institutions use education to strip wealth and financial health away from kids and their parents, greatly mortgaging their future, while feeding them a horrible education that hobbles their ability to dig themselves out of the financial hole that the state and it public colleges and universities have dropped them into. Here, again, those who run these corrupt institution only get richer and richer, and more privileged.

      Of course many of Virginia’s k-12 schools assure failure for many kids whether they get to college or not.

Leave a Reply