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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-5


Terry Moe's Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools


Chapter 6 – Collective Bargaining



In American public education, labor contracts are filled with rules that are adopted for reasons that have nothing to do with what is best for children.  Whether the provisions establish a single salary schedule, seniority rights in transfers and layoffs, caps on faculty meetings, prep time requirements, expansive sick leave, or whatever, they are clearly intended to advance the occupational interests of teachers, and it is easy to see that they often come into conflict with what is best for kids.


These rules, moreover, are not something separate from the organization of schooling.  They are the organization of schooling.  And to the extent that unions are successful in collective bargaining, the public schools have organizations imposed on them that are simply not designed to promote the academic achievement of students and that make it more difficult for the schools to be effective.


Ask yourself these questions.  If it were possible to go back to square one and design schools from scratch, aiming to build organizations that are maximally effective at getting students to learn, would well-intentioned designers choose to adopt seniority rules that give senior teachers their choice of jobs, regardless of their competence? Would they adopt seniority rules that, in layoff situations, force talented junior teachers to be fired while mediocre senior teachers remain in the schools?  Would they adopt rules making it impossible to dismiss bad teachers?  Would they adopt onerous evaluation (and dismissal) procedures that give principals incentives to give all teachers, however incompetent, satisfactory ratings?  Would they pay teachers on the basis of educational credentials that are irrelevant to student achievement?  Would they pay good teachers exactly the same as bad teachers?


The answer in all these cases – and many, many more – is obviously no.  No one who wants what is best for children would organize the schools as they are currently organized.  The schools are only organized as they are because other interests have been in the driver’s seat: the interests of adult employees.  And these interests are brought to bear through the exercise of union power in collective bargaining.




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