Scot Lehigh

The way to better schools is around unions

THIS WEEK is one that illustrates a stark reality about education reform and collective bargaining.

In Boston, the city went into negotiations intent on getting a longer school day to boost student performance. The agreement reached this week, after some two years of negotiation, does not include any new classroom time for kids.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had already backed off his demands that teachers work longer. He’d agreed, instead, to hire almost 500 additional teachers to cover a longer day. But he’d still offered teachers a 16 percent raise over four years.


Emanuel, however, has taken a firmer stand on two issues: making student progress a significant part of teacher evaluations, and giving principals the right to hire those teachers they deem best for their schools. Those stances riled the Chicago Teachers Union.

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The result? A strike.

Unlike Emanuel, Mayor Menino has long made it clear that he wants to avoid labor strife. The result: A quarter-step contract that stops far short of what’s necessary.

“The contract is not transformational, which is what the Boston public school system needs,” says state Representative Marty Walz, Democrat of Boston, former House chairman of the education committee and co-author of the education reform law of 2010. “I would describe it as incremental only.” Hers is an assessment other close observers echo, privately and publicly.

So here’s the reality that Democratic policy makers, who have long had an electoral alliance with the teachers unions, must grapple with. At a time when there’s widespread recognition that big changes are needed in urban schools, two nationally known mayors haven’t been able to secure those changes at the bargaining table. “This is a confirmation that you cannot achieve significant school reform through collective bargaining,” says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation. “It is not going to happen.”


In Boston, the real losers are the schoolchildren. There’s widespread recognition that they need more classroom time. More school time, after all, is one big reason why charter school students regularly outperform traditional public school students. (No, it’s not that they skim off the best students or that charter school parents are more involved with their children; a painstaking 2009 Harvard-MIT study gave the lie to those oft-repeated rationalizations.)

Given that Boston Teachers Union members are some of the best paid teachers in the state and enjoy one of the shortest urban-district days in the nation, there was some hope that the union might not demand extra dollars for every additional minute they worked. BTU teachers, after all, are well-treated. They almost always get annual raises; they receive automatic 4 to 5 percent “step” increases for their first nine years; they benefit from longevity awards every five years after that; and they garner additional pay hikes for earning grad-school credits.

But the BTU dug in, and the city eventually abandoned its push for even one extra period a day, judging it unaffordable at the rate the union insisted upon. It’s now apparent that meaningful reform in Boston will require legislative action.

The situation lends itself to several legislative remedies. One obvious measure is to lift the charter-school cap again.

Charter public schools deliver longer school days for the same per pupil sum that only gets students a shorter day in the traditional schools. With charter slots capped, unions like the BTU can more easily resist meaningful change at the bargaining table. But if charter seats were readily available, the traditional schools would face this choice: Offer equally attractive options, including a longer day, or lose ever more students to the charters. A complementary remedy would be to give principals more power to overhaul traditional schools that are mediocre, but not so bad that they qualify as underperforming.


Next year, the charter school movement will launch an effort to raise, or even eliminate, the charter cap.

It’s now apparent that meaningful reform in Boston will require legislative action.

That fight will be a revealing test. Will Democrats support the kind of changes urban families need? Or will they resist a cap lift, thereby aiding and abetting unions like the BTU in their efforts to maintain the status quo?

How they respond will speak volumes about whose side they are really on.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at
lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter