Bargaining Chip: Community reform group takes on teacher contracts

Can the Our Schools Coalition, a group of community members and education reform advocates, change the face of teachers' contract negotiations?
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Can the Our Schools Coalition, a group of community members and education reform advocates, change the face of teachers' contract negotiations?

It might surprise you to know that, according to a study conducted last spring by the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), Seattle teachers enjoy one of the most cutting-edge collective bargaining agreements in the U.S.

Granted, the study was commissioned by the Our Schools Coalition (OSC), an alliance of nearly forty business, civic and community groups established during the 2010 teacher contract negotiations, and led by some of Seattle’s most prominent education reform advocates. CRPE also espouses a reform agenda.

If you are suspicious of the overall concept of education reform and its proponents, or have a problem with certain elements of the reform agenda, such as tying teacher evaluations to student growth data, you’ll be predisposed to be suspicious of the Our Schools Coalition’s newly-released ten point policy platform for Seattle’s 2013 teacher contract negotiations. This year's negotiation round begins this spring.

The contract negotiated in 2010, which includes a landmark four-tier teacher evaluation system, was largely crafted by and enjoys support from the Seattle Education Association. The Association has been outspoken and unabashed in its efforts to strengthen the teaching profession. It does so, in part, through new teacher mentoring programs and support cohorts for teachers who seek the prestigious National Board Certification. This type of professional support and collaboration lets teachers “define their own profession rather than have it defined for them,” says SEA president Jonathan Knapp.

If elevating the teaching profession is a shared goal, then why the need for a third party?  Knapp himself has been critical of outside parties involving themselves in contract reform.

“When we established the coalition, our premise was that there are community stakeholders who are not union members or district employees — taxpayers, employers, parents — the District’s constituency,” says Sara Morris, president and CEO of the Alliance for Education, one of the coalition’s leaders. “We never felt we deserved a place at the bargaining table and are less interested in process than in outcome. But we believe that the teacher contract is a critical tool in education.” 

Adds OSC member Susannah Malarkey, executive director of the Technology Alliance, a statewide, non-profit organization of technology and research leaders, “Technology Alliance members care about education, especially given the entrepreneurial spirit and preponderance of research and development in our state.”

Proud of the contract that was negotiated in 2010 and their role in helping shape the agenda, the OSC wants to see it fully implemented — with a few enhancements. Their platform includes recommendations in the categories of closing the achievement gap, professional growth and compensation, teacher evaluation, staffing and parent and family communication.

“Because of leadership and staff turnover, implementation of the 2010 contract has not been rigorous,” says Morris. “Our message to the District is, in the spirit of continued improvement, please address this.” 

Motivation is not the issue, adds Steve Sundquist, OSC member and former Seattle School Board director. “Everyone is interested in addressing the achievement gap. The real challenge is implementation and the inability to sustain systemic initiatives.”

Key items from 2010 still unfulfilled include the establishment of the Partnership for Closing the Achievement Gap, which was supposed to be comprised of five representatives each from Seattle Public Schools and the SEA. Morris says repeated requests to the District to find out whether the committee was ever established and, if so, who its members are and what has been accomplished, have not received responses from SPS.

Though the 2010 contract called for providing teachers with career advancement and compensation opportunities, implementation of these “career ladders” differs from the negotiated intent and is not close to being fully implemented, Morris says.

The OSC recommends providing professional development for teachers that is linked to the new evaluation system and to student achievement. They’d like peer and student feedback to be included in teacher evaluations and for teacher performance to be a key factor in hiring, transfer and layoff decisions (a practice which will be phased in under the new Washington state teacher evaluation law). Most controversial of all their recommendations is an end to “forced placement” of teachers in schools so that principals have more autonomy in making hiring decisions.

OSC members say their platform enjoys broad-based majority support and that it was developed based on the results of concerted outreach and by listening to community groups, principals, teachers, parents and taxpayers. “One principal we met with described ‘administrivia,’ the things that get in the way of him serving as an instructional leader at his school,” says Malarkey. “How can principals effectively use the new teacher evaluation tool if nothing else is taken off their plate?”

To counteract the platform’s dense “wonky” tone, recommendations are presented in both “negotiating” language and “kitchen table” language. But there are lingering questions about the breadth of their outreach and accessibility of their message. One African American community member from Capitol Hill, who attended the coalition’s platform launch, wondered, “Whose kitchen table are they talking about?”

Perhaps a more comprehensive form of outreach would be for contract provisions to be discussed at school-based meetings, where community input could be shared with District and union leaders and School Board representatives. Morris says that nationally, there are hints that this type of “inverted bargaining” may be part of the future of contract negotiations.

The openness of contract negotiations is dependent on the parties involved and on the School Board, acknowledges Sundquist, who says that the 2010 process was relatively transparent. It’s too soon to tell what 2013 holds.

You can learn more about the Our Schools Coalition and read the full text of its 2013 policy platform here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick, longtime Crosscut contributor, is the author of "Ruminations from the Minivan" and the blog "Slice of Mid-Life."