Despite popular impressions and dinner-table gossip, the problems of our schools, and above all of “school reform,” are not the result of unions. I speak in part from personal experience over the past thirty-five years in New York City and Boston. The last big project I was involved with in New York, which required real courage on the part of all the major institutional powers, came to a screeching halt because everyone backed down except the teacher’s union. We had asked for a “free zone”-constituting no more than 5 percent of New York’s student population as an experiment in non-regulation (or at least vastly decreased regulation). The state, the city, and the Board of Education ended up backing away, but at no point did the United Federation of Teachers. Perhaps they would have if and when we really began to operate (except on matters of wages and working conditions) outside of the union contract. They weren’t always enthusiastic supporters; they were skeptical from first to last and might have become more so if the idea had caught on. But that’s speculation; in fact they never flinched. They saw the project, they said, as an experiment in providing a form of schooling that would produce better results for kids while also empowering classroom teachers.
My experience over the past five years in Boston is similar. The Pilot Schools project-involving at the start no more than 5 percent of Boston’s students-was based on an agreement between the Boston Teachers Union and the Boston Public Schools to suspend all the regular contractual agreements as they applied to a dozen or so schools, provide a flexible per capita budget to each school, and allow freedom from other city-mandated requirements with regard to curriculum, scheduling, and staffing. Both the BTU and BPS soon lost their initial enthusiasm for the project-which they probably first saw as an answer to charter schools. But the BTU never went back on the original agreement. Small-scale quarrels between the pilots and the BPS, however, were and are constant as we negotiate each provision anew every year: Which budget item do we have control over and which do they? What voice do we have over state-provided “coaches”? Given the constraints of busing, what freedom do we actually have over scheduling? And so on. Because most of the daily issues relate to freedom from city, not union, rules it is hardly surprising that our frustration is usually focused on the “system.” The major worry we hear from the union is whether these less constrained schools actually offer more power to classroom teachers rather than school principals. Both parties also worry that, under the label of autonomy, the Pilot Schools are choosier about which students they accept. Do they, for example, accept fewer troubled students? And both worry about what the consequences would be if the idea really spread-in terms of the impact on...
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