Los Angeles financier Eli Broad and leading teachers union reformers on Friday unveiled a nationwide pilot effort to improve student achievement by rethinking the way unions and management conduct business.
Union officials and school district leaders in four urban systems, including San Francisco Unified, will tackle some of organized labor's sacrosanct issues that usually prove divisive at the bargaining table.
In each district, labor and management might negotiate such items as the length of school days, incentive pay for teachers or peer reviews.
Traditionally, teachers unions have resisted making concessions on these issues, arguing that they would mean extra unpaid work, curb employee rights or have a divisive effect on rank-and-file solidarity. However, unions are under increasing pressure from state legislatures and parents to play productive roles in raising academic achievement. That pressure is expected to increase if President Bush's proposal to require standardized testing in all states wins congressional approval.
In each of the pilot districts, the sides will attempt to refocus contract negotiations on accountability, teacher quality and achievement instead of focusing exclusively on salaries, work rules, grievance procedures and other points that usually dominate labor talks.
"[Unions] have to be willing to try things that they weren't willing to try a decade ago," said Broad, who introduced the initiative in Washington alongside Education Secretary Rod Paige.
"One of the ways to make progress is to start with a collective bargaining agreement that makes student achievement the most important issue," Broad added.
The new approach is certain to test the fortitude of labor leaders. But the head of the Teacher Union Reform Network, a collection of progressive union locals that will oversee the project, expressed optimism.
Adam Urbanski, the head of the teachers union in Rochester, N.Y., predicted that better relationships between labor and management will allow the school systems to focus on classroom instruction and education itself--two issues that often land on the back burner during contract negotiations.
"This is not just about goodwill," Urbanski said. "This is about turning goodwill into results."
In addition to San Francisco and Rochester, the pilot effort involves school systems in Toledo, Ohio, and Montgomery County, Md. An education foundation established by Broad will spend $1.7 million on the four-year endeavor, the latest expenditure by the billionaire chairman of financial services institution SunAmerica Inc. into education reform.
Some teachers worry that altering the traditional posture of their unions could threaten the many rights they have won in collective bargaining. But others said they believe that better relationships will help reduce rancor and allow both sides to take risks.
"It's a very positive step," said Bob Chase, president of the country's largest teachers union, the National Education Assn. "We'll see what happens down the line. The important thing is that people are willing to do things that might make a difference in the lives of teachers and students."
The other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, sounded an equally enthusiastic tone.
"If you have continuity and people working in collaborative fashion, then people are less cynical and more willing to buy in," union spokesman Jamie Horwitz said. "I think this is a trend that is happening around the country."
Union and district leaders in San Francisco will get an almost immediate opportunity to test the collaborative waters. There, the teachers' contract expires at the end of this month.
The head of the teachers union believes that negotiations need to focus not only on money but also on the task of attracting and retaining experienced teachers in the city's poorest-performing schools.
"I see people of goodwill aligned, but I know that it's going to be difficult because there are so many relationships that have to be forged," said Kent Mitchell, president of United Teachers of San Francisco. "We have this opportunity to do something really great. I feel very, very optimistic."