New Education Partnership Report on Rhode Island Teachers’ Union Contracts

The Education Partnership has announced the publication of its second report, Teacher Contracts: Restoring the Balance, Volume II.
The new report is described in a ProJo article entitled Report: Teachers’ benefits ‘excessive’: Teacher contracts in Rhode Island focus too much on “excessive adult entitlements,” such as lifetime health benefits, a business-backed education report states. Union officials call the study “an attack on teacher unions.”:

Teacher union contracts are a major stumbling block to improving education in Rhode Island, according to a business-backed organization that is issuing a report today.
The report…says teacher contracts in Rhode Island focus too much on “excessive adult entitlements” — such as lifetime health benefits, extra pay for professional development and seniority rights — and not enough on student learning.
The report urges political, education and community leaders to work together to change the laws that govern contract negotiations.
The report is the second in two years from The Education Partnership that criticizes teachers’ unions. Last year’s report recommended sweeping changes in the way teachers’ contracts are negotiated, calling for such issues as salaries, benefits and evaluations to be decided at the state level, not by the local districts.
“Unions have got to get back in balance so they aren’t focused solely on membership and benefits, and instead are focusing on the kids,” said Valerie Forti, executive director of The Education Partnership. “It’s not like we have the answers to all these things, but we know what we have now is not working.”
Despite the fact that Rhode Island teachers are among the highest paid in the nation, student performance continues to lag, particularly in urban districts, which have high concentrations of low-income residents, recent immigrants and English language learners. Taxpayers and parents are fed up, and are asking where the money is going, Forti said.
“Rhode Island has shown it is willing to pay top dollar for our schools, because we know good education is expensive. We are not advocating to reduce teacher salaries or remove health care [benefits] and we understand teachers need retirement benefits,” Forti said. “But it is not beneficial to bankrupt communities to provide excessive adult benefits.”
The partnership also examined 13 teacher contracts and cited several examples they found egregious. The Providence teacher contract specifies the insurance provider and allows retirees and their spouses lifetime health insurance after age 65. Teachers in Bristol/Warren retiring with at least 10 years of service can get paid for unused sick time; the maximum allowed for a teacher with 35 years is about $30,000.

As is customary in Rhode Island, union officials are whining:

As they did with last year’s report, union officials called the study “an attack on teacher unions” and “an attempt to gut collective bargaining in Rhode Island.”
Union officials also questioned why The Education Partnership did not include them while compiling the reports.
“If we did not have teacher contracts in place, both teachers and students would be significantly worse off in Rhode Island,” said Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the state chapter of the National Education Association. “We would not have the quality of teachers we have and things like class size, the structure of the school day and professional development would not be protected.”
Putting more authority in the state or school administrators, Walsh said, would cause problems, not solve them. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Walsh said. “The issues facing Providence are different than those facing Westerly, and to say there is one answer is crazy.”
If a statewide health plan cost a community more than the current plan, who would pay the difference? he asked. If principals chose their teachers, doesn’t that open the door to favoritism? Job fairs and job placement based on seniority are more fair and objective than other methods, Walsh said.

Yes, paying the best and worst teachers the same salary based on comparable seniority provides a real incentive for great teachers to excel, doesn’t it? Mr. Walsh’s comments show such mastery of what works in the real world!
The article continues with comments from the state’s leading educational bureaucrat:

Some educators credited The Education Partnership with highlighting many of the pertinent issues many groups are working on, but criticized some language in the report as anti-union. Instead, a statewide discussion needs to include all parties, they say.
“To pull this whole thing off, the conversation should not be about breaking unions but supporting that component of unionism that is where leadership wants to be accountable for results,” said Peter McWalters, Rhode Island’s education commissioner.
McWalters said he does not agree with everything in the report and believes that some problems can be worked out without changing state law. “But I do think the contracts are part of the problem,” he said. “At the same time, if someone thinks the only difference in performance between Scituate and Providence is the teacher contracts, that’s just not the case. It’s more complicated than that.”

Only a bureaucrat would propose a statewide conversation about issues like what East Greenwich is dealing with: (i) 9-12% annual salary increases; (ii) essentially no copayments on health insurance premiums; and, (iii) $5,000 annual cash buybacks for not using health insurance. The working families and retirees of Rhode Island don’t need any more conversations because they know excessive adult entitlements when they see them!

The 58-page report makes several recommendations, including having school committee members take an oath to put student interests first and having committees insert language that would make teachers accountable, such as creating an evaluation system and merit-based pay.
Other recommendations include making professional teacher development part of a longer, 190-day school year that would not require extra compensation and extending the teacher work day to eight hours…
Tim Duffy, executive director of the school committee association, says his organization would not oppose having school board members take an oath and learn more about contract negotiation. Duffy said his group already provides some training in collective bargaining.
But, he said, state law favors unions, and making progress would be difficult.
“Negotiating a contract with public employees is extremely difficult, because there is not a level playing field,” Duffy said.
Duffy also agrees with the Partnership’s recommendation that some items should not be part of the bargaining process. He thinks that issues such as health insurance, making teachers supervisors and curriculum should be decided by school committees.
“As a good practice, you should consult with teachers, but it should be purely the prerogative of the school committee to make these decisions,” he said.

Can you imagine: Local communities actually having control and responsibility for their town’s educational policies? Most citizens do not appreciate how union contracts provide almost no flexibility for the use of good judgment as school officials have only limited management rights under these contracts. It is not completely out of line to say that today’s teachers’ union contracts are structured as if we were living in the manufacturing era from nearly 100 years ago.

Some lawmakers say the tide is turning, and more taxpayers want changes to teacher contracts and the school system.
“Some of the things The Education Partnership is concerned about are currently being addressed in a more meaningful way than ever before,” said state Rep. Paul W. Crowley, D-Newport…
“My opinion is, I’ve seen a change in the mood out here that’s being driven by state’s movement toward accountability and by dollars,” Crowley said…

It is the beginning of a new day in Rhode Island. We have been overpaying for underperformance for too long. People across the state are fed up. And we are not going to take it anymore. We cannot afford to send our children out into a global economy without the tools to compete successfully.
The first report by the Education Partnership can be found here.

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18 years ago

OK, I’m not going to say that the teacher contracts are acceptable. They are not. I agree with you that the average tax payer cannot absorb 5% raises to teachers, municiple employees, or whomever. However, I would like to point out that part of the problem is that median wages decreased 2001-2004. And, even if they did go up in 2005 (data won’t be published till August or so), the amount was minimal, and the median will still be below what it was in 2000. Policies pursued by the current admin and congress at the national level have left the median wage-earner with less money than they had 4 years ago. Again, that is median; half the population is above, half is below. This cannot be skewed by spectacular gains at the upper end the way mean–“average”–income can be. To do this, we need to have policies in place that help as many people as possible at the macro level. Or, at least, we need to stop pursuing failed policies, like the whole “supply-side” hoax, or tax cuts that only benefit the upper end of the scale. They have not worked. Over the last 4 years we have given out $1 Trillion (give or take) in tax cuts, experienced short-term interest rates of 1%, and the result is one of, if not the weakest econ recovery since WWII. That is a lousy ROI. More jobs were created in the 1977-78 recovery than since 2003; those are the Carter years, btw. Also, the tax INCREASE of 1993 was followed by one of the best econ recoveries since WWII. Given this, you have to conclude that tax cuts are either (a)meangless; or (b)actually a bad idea. My point is that we can debate the level of teacher raises till the cows come… Read more »

Donald B. Hawthorne
Donald B. Hawthorne
18 years ago

Klaus: Your first paragraph comments, if serious, make the rest of your comments irrelevant. For example, under the current East Greenwich contract, 9 of the 10 job steps have received 9-12% (not 5%) annual salary increases for each of at least the last 8 years. I know because I was on the School Committee. Until a year ago, they paid a ZERO co-payment on health insurance. Etc. None of us who pay their salaries is getting 9-12% annual salary increases and none of us has zero co-pays. That is why the school budget in our town has gone from 64% to 80% of the total town budget in just 12 years – with essentially no money left for innovative curriculum or for facility maintenance. And it means the annual budget increases are going up faster than taxpayers’ incomes, which reduces all of our standard of living. The teachers in RI are documented – by the unions themselves – to be among the top 10 paid in the 50 states. All for academic performance that ranks nationally standardized tests show to be between 33rd-38th out of the 50 states. That amounts to legalized extortion by the public sector unions who are tax-eaters, especially when it is compounded by the fact that taxpayers – who pay their salaries and benefits – do not have the freedom to shop around for alternative providers. So continuing to repeat your one-issue mantra brings nothing to this debate. This debate is about excessive adult entitlements for people whose performance doesn’t justify it. For more on East Greenwich and Rhode Island specific issues, check out all the links at the bottom of this posting. School choice is the only answer that will bring about real change. Parents, not the government bureaucrats, politicians or unions, should control the… Read more »

18 years ago

You’ll find fewer people discussing “cutting services” on this site than people discussing school choice, charter schools and vouchers. The education debate is much broader than the raise taxes or cut services debate favored by politicians who define success purely in terms of increasing the size of their budgets.
And self-serving, monopolistic, government bureaucracies create third-world style governance faster than macroeconomic trends do.

18 years ago

As always, you are resorting to putting words in the mouth of your opponent to prop up your argument. Only this time it isn’t going to work, my left wing friend. I haven’t seen anyone call for spending less on RI public education — not the EP, not the Projo or anyone else. I do see a lot of calls for spending smarter. For example, do we really need to be number one in the country in the percentage of per pupil spending that goes to salaries and benefits? Or in the percentage of children we classify as “disabled?”
As other writers here have noted, lots of voters — from all sociodemographic groups — “get” the education reform issue. Just look at the polling data (everyone’s polls look the same on this one). There’s a reason Joe Almeida has been talking with Jim Davey about public school choice. The only interesting question is whether the General Assembly will pass a package of education reform bills, or decide to run in November as the incumbent who kept the world safe for the teachers unions and mediocre educations for our children. If they do, it will make for a very clear choice this fall.

18 years ago

It is quite clear that the present structure of the education industry, with union domination, is no different than that which ails GM and Ford.
Like GM and Ford, we are paying unionized employees too much given what we are getting in return. Unfortunately for the parents, we don’t have the opportunity to go elsewhere with our tax dollars for better education values like we are able to do when buying a car.
Teachers unions recognize this very well as is seen in their vehement opposition to any kind of competition from charter schools or vouchers. They know all too well that they will lose big time if these options are available.
It’s too bad that the our schools can’t go bankrupt because that is the only way things are going to change.
Until unions are eliminated from running the schools, nobody should expect one bit of improvement in the schools.

18 years ago

OK, we’ve had the name-calling, and the insunuations, and actually very little addressing of the actual issues I’ve raised. Situation normal. Look, all I’m saying is that you may be missing the forest for the trees. Yes, there are problems with the teachers contracts. I admit that, I agree with you. However, what I also see here is an unhealthy, and perhaps unrealistic, focus on one aspect of the problem. All I am trying to point out is that there is a whole other context for this issue, which is stagnating wages. Looking at one without the other seems a tad myopic. Because even if you can and do “spend smarter,” costs are going to continue to creep upward. If they continue to creep upward faster than wages for the vast majority of the population, you are in a downward spiral. Costs go up, wages don’t….do the arithmetic. So, you need to pay attention to the big picture. A couple of side issues that were raised in the responses. Don’t hand me the Unions Killed GM line. Unions didn’t continue to make short-sighted, bad business decisions. That was the privilege of management. In the late 1970s, GM was fat-n-happy cranking out 302 cu in V-8 engines and making a ton of money. In 1979, the second oil crunch hit, and GM did not have a viable fuel-efficient car on the market and they’ve never recovered. Who made that decision? Secondly, the record on for-profit charter schools is not completely wonderful. There was the chain in Calif last fall that simply didn’t open in Sept, and didn’t notify anyone of this intent until August. And the educational results of charter schools are mixed; some do a good job, some don’t, which is pretty much what you’d expect from a large system.… Read more »

18 years ago

Your wrote, “let’s say you were able to go into the public schools and fire the lowest-performing 10% of the teachers. Do you really think that would improve morale? Ask someone who’s gone through downsizing at a corporation.”
Apparently, you and I come from different worlds. Elite, high performing organizations routinely weed out their lowest performers. That is whether the organization is McKinsey, General Electric, Goldman, or Navy Seals. When you tolerate the presence of low performers, or when they are protected by union contracts, you lower your chances of performing your mission.
Routine culling of your weakest performers is not the same as a one-time, ill thought out downsizing. There are plenty of examples of the latter in corporations around the world that did not produce elite organizations.
When we talk about performance based pay and eliminating weak teachers, we are not talking about a one time downsizing. We are talking about changing our public schools in Rhode Island from an object of derision to an institution we can be proud of, and which can contribute (as they do next door in Massachusetts) to the economic development of our state.

18 years ago

You said – “In the late 1970s, GM was fat-n-happy cranking out 302 cu in V-8 engines and making a ton of money.”
The GM 302 was a special engine created for Trans Am racing from 1967-1969.
Details are what separate cogent arguments from misguided rants.

18 years ago

You always find one excpeption to the rule, and use that to justify your illogical arguments. Others choose to focus on the obvious, larger issues and attack them first, like any intelligent being would.
You chastise others on this blog for criticizing teachers unions, yet all you do is defend the status quo – a miserably failed system. Or, are you going to argue that the system is working? You like graphs, klaus, so take a look at a graph depicting the rise of teachers unions and an accompanying graph of the decline in public school performance. It’s a perfect sideways V.
Teachers unions have destroyed American education, just like they have destroyed may once-great American industries. That does not mean others are not culpable, but THE single biggest problem is the unions and their contracts which stifle innovation, creativity and competition.
If other countries could enter and compete in our education industry today, they would be kicking our butts just like Toyota and Honda are doing today. What is particularly ironic about this is that, initially, many of these countries learned how to do things from the USA. Most importantly, however, is that they also learned what not to do from us – allow unions to run the show.
Face it, klaus, you are a socialist and you don’t like the capitalist approach to solving problems, even though it works. Does that mean it is perfect – no. Is it better than any other system in the world – absolutely.

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