Teacher Union Contracts and High School Reform

Mitch Price:

Are teachers unions and collective bargaining agreements barriers to high school reform and redesign efforts in Washington, California, and Ohio? The short answer: sometimes, but not as often as many educators seem to think.
On one hand, collective bargaining agreements (CBAs)–long, complex, and unwieldy documents which can be difficult for an overworked principal to navigate–are often perceived as obstacles by many principals and other educators, and to a certain extent this perception becomes reality. And, while these perceptions can limit school-level flexibility and autonomy, there are also restrictive provisions within CBAs that do so as well.
On the other hand, CBAs tend to have waiver provisions. In many cases, districts and teachers unions can also negotiate side agreements on individual issues (e.g., memoranda of understanding, or MOUs) to provide desired flexibility. And, in perhaps our most significant finding, many of the CBA provisions that we analyzed were more flexible than educators and reform advocates often suggest.
Finally, many CBA provisions that we studied were simply ambiguous. This ambiguity could potentially allow for greater latitude for an aggressive principal who is looking for greater flexibility and willing to push the envelope, while serving to limit a more cautious or timid principal who looks to the CBA for explicit authority or permission first before acting.