If you believe the two sides currently duking it out over collective bargaining in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states, contracts with teacher unions are either the only thing saving American education from utter ruin or they're the greatest impediment to reforming the system. What's absent from the discussion is an examination of the role of school and district leadership, which has the power (largely unrealized, alas) to make labor agreements far less influential.

Last week, I attended a great panel at the Yale SOM Education Leadership Conference on teacher contracts, ably moderated by Andy Rotherham. Discussing the district's 2009 contract, New Haven Public Schools assistant superintendent Garth Harries placed a lot of blame for the restrictive nature of labor agreements on the poor state of education management, saying that teachers will routinely go above and beyond the requirements of their contract if they trust management. The AFT's Joan Devlin, speaking to a largely unsympathetic crowd, agreed, pointing out that a good working relationship between the New Haven local and district management allowed everyone to move from haggling over hours to talking about how to reform schools together. The entire panel agreed that bold, visionary leadership with integrity is rare at the district level.

I am not naive about the battles unions fight against reform; they deserve criticism for opposing everything from the firing of absence-prone teachers to charter schools in one place or another. However, as Fordham's 2008 report, The Leadership Limbo, illustrated, district leaders often blame unions when they themselves are not using the flexibility afforded them by labor agreements to the fullest. That report also illustrates that managers and school boards? in states without collective bargaining have not fought all that much harder for flexibility than those in states where unions have more leverage.

Reducing state mandates on districts ? whether by abolishing statewide tenure and salary rules or ending mandatory collective bargaining ? can set the stage for meaningful reform. But without strong management and a collaborative relationship with teachers, nothing happens once that stage is set.

? Chris Tessone

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