Legislators Go to Bat (Again) for Teacher Unions

Rhode Island legislators, ever true to their role as water carriers for the state’s teacher unions, stuck another knife in local communities at the end of this year’s legislative session when the Senate passed a bill freezing union contracts in place in no-contract situations. The legislation, which the House did not stick around to pass but still might (it’s pledging to return sometime this summer or in the fall to conclude unfinished business), is a direct challenge to the city of East Providence, where last winter the school committee imposed pay cuts and mandatory healthcare cost sharing on its teachers in order to avert a major tax increase or, worse, outright bankruptcy.

East Providence is facing the worst financial situation in its history, and its school committee sought to impose these changes on its teachers within a period of opportunity afforded by a genuine financial crisis. The opportunity in question was the fact that teachers in the city are currently without a contract. Outside of a contract and facing a meltdown in city finances, the school committee argued that they had the authority to impose immediate changes to the teachers’ pay and benefits package. Naturally, the teachers’ union cried foul and the issue is currently in adjudication.

Not content to leave it at that, where they might lose, the teachers lobby took their case to the General Assembly and got sweetheart legislation drafted that would require cities and towns to adhere to the former contract for as long as it took to obtain a new contract. Tying school committees’ hands like this would mean that municipalities, no matter how cash strapped, would have to bargain on a new contract with the former contract still in place, and it would render East Providence’s bold move null and void. Since negotiations over new contracts sometimes can take years to resolve (witness Warwick this decade and last), municipalities would be forced to continue paying salaries and collecting healthcare co-pays at previous levels no matter how unaffordable they may be in the here and now. In the case of East Providence’s teachers, that would mean that teachers would continue to pay nothing for their healthcare. For teacher unions currently minus a contract or about to pass into a no contract phase, there would be little incentive to cut a new deal on a new contract anytime soon.

As it did with forcing continuance of dog racing at Twin River despite the fact that it loses money and could derail the restructuring and sale of the facility to new owners, the General Assembly has taken a similar confounding step in freezing teachers’ contracts in place. I see no prospect that the House will not pass its version of the same legislation, and both chambers will override the Governor’s certain veto of it. In both cases legislators are cravenly responding to special interests and saying, the hell with Twin River, and the hell with the cities and towns. It’s almost unbelievable in its pandering and irresponsibility.

Unfortunately, it’s all part of a well-worn pattern. Teacher unions, led by the NEA-RI, routinely oppose anything that would in any way challenge or diminish their established power. At their behest, legislators also tried to shoot down a modest expansion of the charter school program in the state because, naturally, the teachers unions instinctively oppose charter schools and the recently introduced program of mayoral academies. The General Assembly only restored the funding when threatened with a loss of federal dollars by the Obama administration’s Education Secretary.

As another example of how constituencies are beginning to fight back against the iron grip of the teacher unions, at the request of the state education commissioner the city of Providence has just announced that it will henceforth allow its school principals to begin filling teacher vacancies based on the best match for the classroom and not, as the practice has been, on simple seniority. Of course, the union is threatening to sue. Hopefully they’ll tackle merit pay based on classroom performance next

Teacher unions across the nation have traditionally approached contract negotiations and their classroom roles guided by an inflexible industrial model, as if teaching students was akin to turning out widgets in a factory. The results of this outdated and stultifying approach is where we find ourselves today, with falling student performance and shockingly low graduation rates, despite the enormous sums we pay for secondary education, most of which goes not to students, classrooms or activities but rather to pay and benefits for unionized teachers.

Communities simply cannot sustain these costs, which is why they’re beginning to push back in regaining some of the authority and management rights they turned over to the unions in round after round of successive pro-union contracts. More power to them in restriking a more proper balance.