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Bluegrass Beacon: Union contracts squeeze school districts’ flexibility

Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.

Those who’ve convinced themselves that teachers’ union contracts don’t affect how flexible, innovative and ultimately successful school districts are in educating future generations also likely believe Russia colluded with Donald Trump’s campaign to keep Hillary Clinton from becoming president.

Not that we couldn’t use some more – and more recent – research regarding how collective bargaining agreements tie administrators’ hands and affect education outcomes. Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis and the new state Board of Education should put a high priority on releasing results when an examination now underway by the Kentucky Department of Education on the impact of Jefferson County Public Schools’ (JCPS) contract with its union, the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA), is complete.

Such information likely would add to the support for state intervention in JCPS – one of the nation’s largest school districts – where, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a 28-point gap between white and black students in 2011 became 38 points in 2017 and a 23-point gap in fourth-grade reading in 2015 grew to a 35-point gap in just two years. Based on that miserable performance and available, if dated, data regarding the impact of labor agreements on work and personnel policies, there should, at the very least, be widespread agreement that the squeeze applied by most teachers’ union contracts aren’t producing a stellar education performance – especially for our most at-risk children.

A report released by the Office of Education Accountability (OEA) in 2010 concluded the JCPS-JCTA contract was the commonwealth’s “most comprehensive and cumbersome.” Considering only a handful of Kentucky school districts have labor agreements, that conclusion in and of itself wasn’t exactly earth-shattering.

However, it’s why OEA researchers chose “comprehensive and cumbersome” that’s undeniably relevant to the district’s academic performance for decades.“

Comprehensive and cumbersome” addresses how the union’s contract ties decision-makers’ hands, particularly when it comes to implementing policies that get the best, most-experienced teachers in the lowest-performing schools.

Union leaders have repeatedly claimed since that report was issued that JCTA no longer stands in the way of placing teachers with seniority in failing schools.

Technically, they’re right. But the ruse is that while the union doesn’t overtly demand that “great teachers aren’t allowed to be placed where they’re most needed,” it chafes against offering financial incentives in the form of cash bonuses or raises to entice proven instructors to accept more demanding assignments.

“Lower-performing schools have more inexperienced teachers and higher turnover rates than higher-performing schools,” the OEA report said. The report added that “a large percentage of teachers being hired were teacher interns with less than 1 year of experience” in the district’s lowest-performing schools.

Did you catch that? “Teacher interns.

”A Thomas B. Fordham Institute report in 2008 looked at labor agreements in America’s 50 largest school districts and deemed the JCPS-JCTA contract “highly restrictive” overall.

It also gave the agreement a “D-minus” for both its harmful impact on work rules and personnel policies, including impeding superintendents’ ability to place great teachers – who play the leading role in students’ education – in classrooms where they can make the biggest difference.

Those who genuinely care about students cringe at such results, knowing it’s usually the poor and disadvantaged who bear the brunt of union contracts that reward – and thus encourage – failed policies and their inevitable results. The Fordham report’s observation that “hardly any contracts enshrine a high degree of flexibility” and its research showing that only three of the labor agreements had a more negative impact on personnel policies means the JCPS-JCTA ruse was one of the nation’s worst.

Those involved in the upcoming negotiation of a new agreement have a golden opportunity to prove that conclusions reached by Fordham and the OEA are, indeed, old news.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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