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.