Progress in the Parish: Why Jefferson Schools Should Reject Collective Bargaining
School board must choose between advancing student outcomes and pleasing special interests
On Tuesday the Jefferson Parish School Board will meet to consider approving a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the Jefferson Federation of Teachers (JFT). The board elected not to renew the CBA last year, opting for individual contracts with teachers.
While neighboring Orleans Parish has received international attention for its heralded post-Katrina school reforms, Jefferson Parish has also embarked in a remarkable effort to transform a troubled school system.
Like New Orleans, Jefferson’s reforms are now bearing fruit. And like New Orleans, Jefferson benefits from leadership that places students above special interests. Here are five reasons why approving a new CBA would stymie momentum and risk recent gains:
1. Schools Are More Autonomous, Innovative and Accountable Without CBA Constraints
Since 2011, Jefferson Parish has pursued a strategy of giving more autonomy and decision-making power to schools and their principals. This has given leaders the freedom to focus more narrowly on student success and teacher development.
In exchange for this increased freedom and flexibility, schools, principals and teachers are finally being held accountable for school performance. For example, the district elected not to renew contracts with 15 principals at schools with unsatisfactory academic growth.
This sensible approach is commonplace the private sector, but in the union-dominated world of public education it is still regarded as revolutionary. But no organization can thrive without strong, flexible leadership.
This ability to innovate will become even more important in coming years. To take one example, Hispanic families made up 40% of those registering for pre-kindergarten spots in Jefferson this year. Adapting to this demographic shift and addressing new challenges that may arise in the years ahead will require leaders who are not constrained by a thicket of union rules and bureaucracy.
Principals, teachers and other administrators should work collaboratively, but the JFT’s overly prescriptive approach to “decision teams” hampers effective leadership. Jefferson schools will be better able to navigate the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century if school leaders have the autonomy to innovate, while being held accountable for academic outcomes.
2. Collective Bargaining Agreement Prioritizes Union Wants Over Student Needs
The Jefferson Parish Public School System (JPPSS) is to be commended for taking a more “student-centric” approach in recent years. While this emphasis on the student should be the norm, in fact it is not. Much of this is due to the power of the union. Among the most egregious union practices has been the determination to ensure that job security takes priority over teacher quality.
While many are aware that union agreements make it almost impossible to replace an ineffective teacher, there are lesser know provisions that also demonstrate misplaced union priorities. For example, the JFT believes that special programs, like summer school, should be staffed by teachers on a rotating basis rather than staffed according to quality. In other words, the union wants to prohibit schools from selecting the teachers most suited for a particular assignment. The impact of this approach is not quantifiable but there is no question that students are the losers when schools cannot select the best person for a particular job.
Students have also suffered from a dearth of educational options over the years. JPPSS has finally taken steps to address this by bringing in new charter schools to the district. Programs like Course Choice will also expand the range of educational opportunities. The trend towards offering students more high quality options is long overdue and should continue. Empowering a union that consistently opposes choice through a new CBA would likely stunt the growth of this burgeoning educational marketplace and demonstrate a lack of commitment to the students of Jefferson Parish.
3. Financial Resources Are Being Deployed More Effectively
In 2010 JPPSS faced an annual deficit of $25 million. Difficult decisions have been made over the past three years, including eliminating approximately 150 central office administrative positions and closing 7 under-enrolled and under-performing schools.
The district has now achieved a balanced budget for two consecutive years. As further evidence of this fiscal probity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invited JPPSS to apply for a large grant and serve as a model of effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.
Unfortunately, JFT has not been eager to embrace this responsible approach. The union continues to promote inefficient policies that drive up costs and do nothing to improve educational outcomes.
Public finances at the state and local level are likely to be stretched thin for decades to come. Success in this challenging environment will require the kind of prudence and flexibility that unions consistently oppose. If the district hopes to allocate its dollars in the most effective manner possible, rejecting the CBA is imperative.
4. Existing Law and Policy Already Protects Employees
Unions have served a valuable purpose in our society. There was a time when many private and public sector employees lacked protection from unjust terminations and unreasonable working conditions and unions helped address these wrongs.
But federal and state labor laws evolved over the years and now offer considerable protection to workers. With the pendulum having swung in the other direction, unions are often left justifying their existence by battling for relatively trivial benefits. Further, these benefits do not advance the true mission of public schools: educating children.
It should also be noted that the lack of a CBA does not prevent JPPSS from addressing the concerns of teachers, either through district policy or employment contracts. Doing this without a CBA actually gives JPPSS more freedom to carefully craft its policy, rather than engaging in the one-size-fits-all approach that a CBA inevitably requires.
Finally, proceeding without a CBA will give JPPSS teachers greater freedom of association. Teachers who choose to join the JFT should be free to do so. But teachers should not be prevented from joining other professional development organizations, a legitimate issue at a time when growing numbers of teachers are seeking alternatives to the established unions.
5. Academic Outcomes Demonstrate Validity of Current Approach
None of the arguments outlined above would stand if these policy changes had not produced better academic outcomes. But results demonstrate the validity of the JPPSS approach. According to today’s grading scale, Jefferson schools were rated an F in 2008. Today they have improved to a C. Not surprisingly, the greatest jump in Performance Score took place in 2011-12, after Jefferson began prioritizing performance and principal autonomy. The district’s overall performance improved from 67th to 41st in the state in just two years. And graduation rates continue to rise while dropout rates fall.
These results prove that the new approach is yielding benefits, but they also highlight the fact that Jefferson still has a long way to go. Of course the union will argue that this progress could have been achieved with their full cooperation. But the long, steady decline of JPPSS occurred at the peak of union influence. The decision to take a different approach was not made lightly and the union has stood in opposition throughout this turnaround.
Jefferson Parish is at a pivotal point in its history. New Orleans is now appealing to many of the young families who in the past would have migrated to Jefferson. Many of those who choose to live outside of New Orleans are opting for the North Shore. If Jefferson is to thrive, strong public schools are critical.
Policymakers at all levels tend to shy away from direct conflict with teachers unions. This is understandable – teachers are pillars of the community, and many of us have friends or family who teach. But it is clear that a CBA is not needed to protect the interests of teachers.
Further, the union has aggressively fought against the statewide education reforms in Baton Rouge in recent years. While district leadership in Jefferson has embraced teacher accountability, school choice and other sensible reforms, the union has resisted them tooth and nail. A union that rejects the JPPSS approach to education reform should not be surprised when the district elects not to empower them through an ineffective and burdensome CBA.
The role of a school board is not to court popularity, but to ensure that children in the district have access to a superior education. Recent reforms have gone a long way to guaranteeing this access. A new CBA would endanger this turnaround and raise questions about the long-term prospects of Jefferson Parish.