Moloney's World: Teacher Unions Exposed

In the ever-changing kaleidoscope of American education reform we have lately seen, from the local to the national level, an intense scrutiny of the vital but little understood phenomena of teacher labor agreements. Here in Colorado observers have been riveted by the bizarre spectacle of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot before grudgingly embracing the request of two city schools (Bruce Randolph M.S. and Manual H.S.) and their teachers for some degree of freedom from the union contract. Even these reluctantly granted waivers -- hedged by vague language, fixed duration, and a “freeze” on any other schools applying -- left many saying that the DCTA only said yes owing to the tsunami of bad publicity they had just suffered.

Another reason for the DCTA to choose cooperation over confrontation is that an even greater threat to union power looms on the horizon: the proposed legislation recently filed by Democratic Senate President Peter Groff that would give some freedom from union contracts to many other Colorado schools.

Additional developments sparking hope that the glacial pace of school reform hereabouts might be accelerating include serious autonomy initiatives emerging in the struggling Aurora school district and among no less than eighteen geographically contiguous schools in northeast Denver.

Those seeking perspective on what all this means and where it might lead can usefully turn to the recently released report of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, “The Leadership Limbo: Teacher Labor Agreements in America’s Fifty Largest School Districts.”

In this impressive research opus, district contracts were rated in terms of their restrictiveness as measured by three key components: Compensation, Personnel Policies, and Work Rules.

Of the two Colorado districts among the fifty largest Denver, ranked 26th in restrictiveness and Jefferson County 36th.

Interestingly when the ratings are disaggregated into individual scores for each of the three components, an unusual profile emerges for Denver.

On Compensation only four of the fifty rank higher than Denver in terms of flexibility or non-restrictiveness- a circumstance clearly reflecting the virtue of the nationally praised DPS PRO-COMP program.

On the other two components, however, which were the thorniest issues in the Bruce Randolph imbroglio, Denver’s ranking plummets. On Personnel Policies only nine of the fifty rank lower, and on Work Rules only four district contracts were rated worse (LA, Fresno, San Diego, and Miami).

So what are we to make of all this – signs of genuine hope and change or just another false dawn?

It is significant that the Colorado Change initiatives discussed above all are occurring in urban school settings where student achievement is seen at its worst and parental/political pressures to do something about it, is greatest.

The role of Senator Groff is highly instructive. While he is a leader of the political party that historically has been most supportive of labor unions, he also represents Denver constituents whose children have suffered immensely from the baleful effects of bad education. His attempt to pass a law that will directly challenge union power clearly signals that he has made a decision that the educational status quo simply cannot be allowed to continue.

Unions also produce thoughtful people. One is Brad Juppe, long a leader of the DCTA, and now a DPS assistant superintendent.

Like Peter Groff, Brad Juppe knows that the status quo must change, that unions must change- must stop talking about “reinventing” themselves as leaders of reform and actually do it.

Unions in the private sector changed when a time came where they had no other choice. Public sector unions can and will change when that time comes for them.

Senator Groff and others like him are sending a message: That time has arrived.

Dr. Moloney was Colorado Education Commission from 1997-2007. His columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Washington Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News and Pacific News Service.