Invisible Ink in Collective Bargaining Agreements: Why Key Issues Are Not Addressed

Emily Cohen, Kate Walsh, and RiShawn Biddle
National Center on Teacher Quality
July 2008

This is an indispensable companion to a Fordham study released earlier this year, which found that many big-district teacher contracts are ambiguous and that their school leaders may have more decision-making flexibility than they (or others) think. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) gathered and codified the bargaining agreements on which Fordham's study was based; now it has done the same for state laws as well and produced this fine report. Its authors found, after analyzing the data, that state laws, and sometimes courts and labor relations boards, often plug the holes that are left open in teacher contracts. In other words, ambiguities in local bargaining agreements don't always yield autonomy because other forces cramp it. Every state, for instance, has a law that sets the number of years a teacher must serve to gain tenure. In addition, state laws frequently set requirements for policies regarding evaluation, dismissal, class size, and salary. California, for example, stipulates "10 different steps that must be taken before the dismissal is finalized, perhaps explaining why just 100 dismissal hearings were heard in the state between 1996 and 2005." Of course, teacher unions play a central role in pushing such laws through legislatures. NCTQ cites the case of New York, where unions pressured lawmakers to embed "a provision in the 2008-2009 budget that made it illegal to consider a teacher's job performance as a factor in the tenure process." This clever ruse tossed a monkey wrench into New York City's efforts to increase teacher accountability, even though the district's teacher contract was silent on the issue. Read much more about it in the report.

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