Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Trouble with Unions

I've had several people ask me the same basic question about the previous post.  Some variation of this (which I just copied and pasted from the latest email from a friend):

I thought it was typically part of the agreements that school districts have with the teachers' unions that required the "last hired, first fired" approach to layoffs.  Is that true?  If so, is it not expected that the layoffs would hit a brand new school like Futures?  Why should I think something different should happen?  Is this not what the teachers have negotiated with the schools?

Excellent question.  I answered, but then I ran  my answer by an anonymous teacher friend who helped me edit.  Here is our answer:

this part mostly from me, augmented by anonymous friend:

You're correct that typically unions have policies of last hired, first fired. The union in this district is no different. In practice, because this is a highly segregated district, teachers with more tenure move to the hills schools that tend to have a better reputation and tend to serve middle- and upper-class, predominantly white and Asian students.  The result is that every time there are layoffs, the flat-land schools serving low-income, predominantly Latino and African American students are disproportionately affected while the hills schools lose far fewer.  As some layoffs happen almost every year, the problem compounds and flatland schools have really high teacher turnover.  Coupled with the difficult working conditions, there is even greater turnover in schools like Futures (sometimes over 50% per year EVERY YEAR).  The students who attend Futures have really chaotic lives, so having lots of teacher turnover makes it even more difficult for students, who arguably need the most support, to get what they need. That 100% of the Futures staff were committing to stay is remarkable, highly unusual, and really important for these students.
The big problem this year is the sheer number of layoffs.  They don't usually lay off such a high percentage of teachers.  I'm not sure why they're doing it - I know the budget is bad but they'll have to rehire most of those positions anyway because you really do need a minimum amount of teachers legally.  But because the number is so high, schools like Futures, instead of having half their staff laid off, is having basically the whole staff laid off.  They'll probably get rehired by the end of the summer, but who wants to wait until August to see if you can get your old position back? This is pretty much as the union has negotiated it, and it amounts to poor kids in bad schools getting new teachers every year (this year all but one at the whole school will be new) and better-off kids in nicer schools having very few teachers laid off.  So, it really annoys me because it amounts to the adults negotiating what's best for them (working in nicer schools) and not what's best for the kids who need the most help. It also means that people who actually WANT to work with kids at Futures can't rely on having a job each year, which de-incentivises the job even more.

(this next mostly from anonymous friend):
Unions do help with negotiating salaries and collective bargaining (if they aren't making crazy demands) and they're supposed to help defend against insane administrators (in theory), but they're also designed to protect their most senior members first. This is really problematic if you're a kid in a not-so-desirable school because as soon as (most) teachers get enough seniority, they leave. This isn't new for our district (or most districts with some schools that are comprised of large numbers of low income students and others that have few low income kids) and it really does hurt kids who attend schools like Futures. I kind of get the utility of unions for helping with collective bargaining, but they're really not helpful for supporting achievement or building consistent and positive climates for the neediest students. They're also not helpful for replenishing the teacher workforce. I don't have the statistics off-hand, but there's this article I saw that documents how many new people are becoming teachers each year. The number has dropped dramatically as schools have begun to layoff large numbers of new teachers because of the budget cuts. What happens in 10-20 years when all of these really senior union members all retire? Who will replace them? How inexperienced will they be?
I agree that people might have lots of questions about unions, particularly with what's been happening in Wisconsin with union busting. My stance is usually that unions are marginally helpful in some ways, but that in their current form, they really hurt the kids I worked with and care about that are most often forgotten about and most dis-served by public education. I don't think it's a good idea to get rid of unions, but I would like to see them create better incentives to teach in schools like Futures. What if unions negotiated a salary bonus for teaching in tough-to-staff schools? Maybe then more senior teachers would be interested in staying and future lay-offs would be distributed more uniformly. Or, what if there was a modified last hired-first fired rule that unions negotiated where the rule applied, but only up to some proportion of the total teaching staff at any one school (like not more than 30% of the teachers at any school could be laid off under the rule). I think unions could do a much better job protecting not only teachers, but also low-income black and Latino students. Do I think this union would go for it...yeah, probably not. But I can dream.
 Sound like excellent suggestions.  I wish they could be put into practice.  


One year ago: Suspension Form

Four years ago: More Evaluator Woes

Five years ago: One More Thing to Buy

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