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Why StudentsFirst Supports Teachers' Right to Collective Bargaining

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In the wake of recent efforts to eliminate collective bargaining, StudentsFirst members have been asking for my views on this critical topic in public education today.

We agree that citizens can no longer avoid the budget crises happening across the country. Governors are having to make very tough decisions. We need to reduce bureaucracies and address bloated pensions that are crippling state budgets, and introduce new models for state employees to contribute to their benefits.

However, in no way does this mean we should take away teachers' rights to collectively bargain.

In my own experience with collective bargaining as chancellor in Washington, D.C., I definitely haven't agreed with everything union leaders believed. We fought tooth and nail on some issues as we strove for a new balance giving more weight to student achievement in our contracts. But in the end, we came to a groundbreaking agreement that finally allowed the district to recognize and reward great teachers and swiftly separate those who weren't up to the task.

When we lament unbalanced union contracts that do not serve children well, it is important to remember that these contracts were signed by two parties, making district leaders just as responsible for the lack of balance that exists today. And district leaders do need to take a hard line in union negotiations to bring a balance back in favor of student achievement. But that doesn't mean we should encourage getting rid of those negotiations altogether. Disagreement and debate can be a good thing and do not have to result in policies favoring adult interests over children's.

StudentsFirst absolutely supports the right of teachers to collectively bargain on many issues, such as base compensation and professional development. Some have asked if we say we are putting students first, why are we agreeing with unions on this point?

Here is why. Collective bargaining for wages and benefits is not the reason American schools fail. Even in "right to work" states that do not have collective bargaining, we still see many of the problems that hurt our schools: bureaucratic inertia, red tape limits on parent choice, seniority-based layoffs, and fiscal irresponsibility. Overseas, many countries see teachers unions drive high standards and expectations for all teachers.

The problem is not collective bargaining. The problems arise when unions use collective bargaining to push for policies that devalue great teachers, such as insisting that all teachers should be treated as interchangeable in terms of performance and pay.

Unions should have every right to continue representing their members, speaking up for teachers as they negotiate salaries, professional development and benefits. But they should not actually be co-managing school systems, and many decisions do not belong on the bargaining table. For example, it would present a huge conflict of interest for unions to be negotiating performance evaluations when unions have to represent effective and ineffective teachers alike. Districts should be able to create evaluations, reward teachers' success, empower parents with more choices, and run the school system while held to high standards for accountability and success.

We founded StudentsFirst to create a balance with other special interests, not to snuff out other voices. To put students first on this issue, we need to be smart and focus on the issues that matter in advancing student achievement. We absolutely can do that with collective bargaining in place.

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