School reform threatens teachers' union rights


THE LITMUS TEST for any piece of education legislation must be, ''Is it good for kids?'' If it's good for kids, it should be approved. If it's bad for kids, it should be amended or rejected.

As it stands now, House Bill 312, the legislation pending in Annapolis that seeks to overhaul the school system, limits or eliminates collective bargaining rights for teachers and paraprofessionals. Here's why that's bad for kids.

Successful reforms in urban school districts have come through mutual cooperation between union and management. If school employees lose their contractual rights -- and this bill threatens those rights -- Baltimore students would lose. If teachers had been invited to be part of the team that secretly drafted the agreement that formed the basis of the legislation, we surely would be much farther along in the process of reshaping and reviving Baltimore schools.

Over the years, the Baltimore Teachers Union has fought for and won contract provisions to strengthen teaching and learning. These are teacher-initiated reforms that would not have happened without the union contract. Here are a few examples.

In the 1989-1992 contract, the union won approval to create restructured schools. What started in 14 schools has spread to every school. Now known as enterprise schools, they use a form of site-based management that allows front-line workers to address the unique needs of their schools. School teams make decisions on curriculum and how money is spent on staff, books, equipment, supplies and various programs. Is this good for kids? You bet it is.

In the 1988 contract, the union created a new category -- master teacher -- to keep good teachers in the classroom. These experienced teachers supervise and mentor newer teachers and share successful teaching techniques. Is this good for kids? When teachers improve their skills, it certainly is good for kids.

Sharpen skills

Also in 1988, the BTU established the Teacher Center, which offers professional-development workshops for teachers and paraprofessionals. The union created the center to fill the void when the school system made the unfortunate decision to cut funding for staff development. Students benefit in numerous ways when school staff regularly sharpen their skills and expand their knowledge base.

In the 1978 contract, the union secured contractual promises to limit class size. While the contract doesn't hold management to a certain ratio -- something teachers wanted -- it does state that the school board will make every effort to keep class sizes low. Parents and teachers understand that small class size means more attention for individual students; it's common sense. And yes, it's good for the kids.

The current contract also includes teacher-initiated language requiring teacher attendance at PTA meetings. Teachers know that regular communication between parent and teacher is essential to a student's academic achievement. Learning doesn't stop at the school door; parents must know about, and be involved in, their children's school work. This is good for kids.

In addition to teacher-requested contract provisions calling for the removal of disruptive students, the BTU recently proposed a tough discipline code that outlines the consequences for

misbehavior, ranging from detention to placement in an alternative classroom to expulsion. The proposed code is being used as the basis for a joint BTU-school board effort to write a system-wide discipline code. Teachers need maximum support so that classrooms are serious learning environments. Is this good for kids? Obviously, yes.

Schools undoubtedly would be worse off without these contract-related reforms. National studies analyzing the impact of teacher collective bargaining on student performance shatter the myth that unions hurt student performance. The Institute for Wisconsin's Future found that student performance on the SAT exam and the NAEP fourth-grade reading test is significantly better in highly unionized states. Studies by the RAND Corp. and Harvard University, among others, also have shown that collective bargaining doesn't interfere with school management.

Teachers shouldn't have to fight for these reforms at the bargaining table. But experience in Baltimore and in many other cities has shown that if teachers don't fight for provisions like these to help students, no one else will.

There's a lot going on in Baltimore public schools to make our community proud. There's also an awful lot that needs fixing. Teachers and paraprofessionals are willing to roll up their sleeves and do their part, but they see no reason to give up their legal right to collective bargaining to do so.

It would be unjust for the legislation to pass with the union-busting provisions -- or to be killed because some lawmakers won't remove it. With some critically needed changes to this legislation and by spreading many of the proven programs already in the city schools, Baltimore schools can be a renewed source of pride for the community and the state.

Marcia Brown is president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. Lorretta Johnson is president of its paraprofessional chapter.

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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