Bargaining Away Quality

The Union Contract: Wrapping Schools in Red Tape

Modeled after labor arrangements in factories, the typical teachers union contract is loaded with provisions that do not promote education. These provisions drive away good teachers, protect bad teachers, raise costs, and tie principals’ hands.

Paying Teachers to Do Nothing

New York City was once home to the infamous rubber room — a place where teachers awaiting disciplinary measures were sent to twiddle their thumbs while still receiving full pay as their grievances went through the system — but now it has an even bigger problem on its hands: The city spends more than $100 million every year paying teachers who have been excessed but have yet to find jobs.

The ironclad union contract requires that any teacher with tenure be paid their full salary and benefits if they are sent to the “Absent Teacher Reserve pool,” according to The Wall Street Journal. The average pay of a teacher in that pool? $82,000 a year. Some of the teachers have been in the pool since 2006. According to the Journal, the majority of teachers in the pool had “neither applied for another job in the system nor attended any recruitment fairs in recent months.”

This is what the union wants: To keep teachers on the payroll regardless of whether or not they are doing any work or needed by the school district. Why? As long as they are on the payroll, they keep paying union dues. The union doesn’t care about the children who will be hurt by this misallocation of funds — think of all the new textbooks $100 million would buy. All union leaders care about is protecting their members and, by extension, their coffers.

Thinning the Talent Pool

One problem related to the destructive transfer system is a hiring process that takes too long and/or starts too late, thanks in part to union contracts. Would-be teachers typically cannot be hired until senior teachers have had their pick of the vacancies, and the transfer process makes principals reluctant to post vacancies at all for fear of having a bad teacher fill it instead of a promising new hire.

In the study Missed Opportunities, The New Teacher Project found that these staffing hurdles help push urban districts’ hiring timelines later to the point that “anywhere from 31 percent to almost 60 percent of applicants withdrew from the hiring process, often to accept jobs with districts that made offers earlier.”

“Of those who withdrew,” the TNTP report continues, “the majority (50 percent to 70 percent) cited the late hiring timeline as a major reason they took other jobs.”

The kicker is that it’s the better applicants who are driven away: “[A]pplicants who withdrew from the hiring process had significantly higher undergraduate GPAs, were 40 percent more likely to have a degree in their teaching field, and were significantly more likely to have completed educational coursework” than the teachers who ended up staying around to finally receive job offers.

One Principal’s Story, as told to The New Teacher Project

If you are smart enough, you hide your vacancies. You say to the HR staffing liaison, “I don’t anticipate that I will need another English teacher.” At the same time, you have already identified the teacher you want for the position. You say to the teacher, “If you can hang in there and not start officially teaching until late September, but remain as a substitute until then, I will do everything to try to hire you.” Then, you call the liaison back when you know all of the excessed teachers have been placed someplace else, and say, “Oh I actually do need someone.” You say, “I have some resumes” and pretend to just find someone for the slot even though I had them all along. If you are a smart principal, you do this all of the time. But it is very hard to do this where there are a lot of excess teachers, like in social studies.

Keeping Experienced Teachers from Poor Children

Another common problem with the union contract is a “bumping” policy that fills schools which are more needy (but less desirable to teach in) with greater numbers of inexperienced teachers. In its report Teaching Inequality, the Education Trust wrote:

“Children in the highest-poverty schools are assigned to novice teachers almost twice as often as children in low-poverty schools. Similarly, students in high-minority schools are assigned to novice teachers at twice the rate as students in schools without many minority students.”

Taking Money from Good Teachers to Give to Bad Teachers

During the expansion of teacher collective bargaining in the mid-twentieth century, economists from Harvard and the Australian National University found, the average, inflation-adjusted salary for U.S. teachers rose modestly -- while “the range of the [pay] scale narrowed sharply.” Measuring aptitude by the quality of the college a teacher attended, the researchers found that the advent of the collectively bargained union contract for teachers meant that more talented teachers were getting less, while less talented teachers were getting more.

The earnings of teachers in the lowest aptitude group (those from the bottom-tier colleges) rose dramatically relative to the average, so that teachers who in 1963 earned 73 percent of the average salary for teachers could expect to earn exactly the average by 2000. Meanwhile, the ratio of the earnings of teachers in the highest-aptitude group (from the highly selective colleges) to earnings of average teachers fell dramatically. In states where they began with an earnings ratio of 157 percent, they ended with a ratio of 98 percent.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), as reported by Education Week, add further evidence to the compressed-pay claim. NCES stats indicate that the average maximum teacher pay nationwide is only 1.85 times greater than the nationwide average salary for new teachers.

Locking Up Education Dollars

Much of the money commanded by teachers union contracts is not being used well, at least from the perspective of parents or reformers. Several provisions commonly found in union contracts that cost serious money have been shown to do little to improve education quality. In a 2007 report, the nonprofit Education Sector found that nearly 19 percent of all public education spending in America goes towards things like seniority-based pay increases and outsized benefits -- things that don’t go unappreciated, but don’t do much to improve teaching quality. If these provisions were done away with, the report found, $77 billion in education money would be freed up for initiatives that could actually improve learning, like paying high-performing teachers more money.

The Bottom Line

Too many schools are failing too many children. Americans should not remain complacent about how districts staff, assign, and compensate teachers. And too many teacher s union contracts preserve archaic employment rules that have nothing to do with serving children.