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. . . and Why Unions Are Death on Charter Schools
Sunday, December 6, 1998

Sol Stern

THE United Federation of Teachers (UFT) had a bad week in Albany last week. For the first time in history, one of the Legislature's two houses — the state Senate — passed education reforms that were not pre-approved by the teachers union bosses.

With Gov. Pataki and the Senate on record for charter schools, the UFT now is squeezing Assembly Speaker Sheldon Sill. Specifically, the UFT is pushing — as it tried and failed with the governor and the Senate — to mandate that every charter school in New York City be controlled by the UFT from day one.

The UFT has even stooped to calling the senate bill "union busting" even though the bill provides the teaching staff of every new charter school with the right — on their own, if they so desire — to elect a union and negotiate a contract. Virtually all of the more than 1,000 charter schools in operation around the nation have chosen not to go the union route, because teachers favor the flexibility charter schools offer over the straitjacket of union work-to-rule contracts.

Why would forcing a one-size-fits-all union contract environment on charter schools in New York be so bad? Read the UFT contract’s provisions and you'll understand.

The current contract between the Board of Education and the UFT can best be described as a "we-don't-do-windows" document. Among the tasks that principals are forbidden to require of teachers under the contract: attending more than one staff meeting per month after school hours, walking the children to a school bus, patrolling the hallways or the lunchroom or the schoolyard, covering an extra class in an emergency, attending a lunchtime staff meeting, or coming in a few days prior to the opening of school each September to do some planning.

The contract undermines teacher professionalism, excellence and hard work in other ways. In most of the city's schools, principals must fill many of their teacher vacancies according to seniority rather than merit. And when a teacher transfers from one city school to another, the principal of the new school can't even get the previous principal's written comments on the transferring teacher's personnel file.

What is most revealing about the UFT contract, however, is what it does not say. In its 200 pages of text, this labor agreement breathes not a word about how many hours teachers must work. Article Six stipulates only that "the school day ... shall be six hours and 20 minutes" and that the school year lasts from the Tuesday after Labor Day until June 26. School principals may not require teachers to be in the building one day before that Tuesday, one minute before the students arrive each day, or one minute after the students leave.

Of course, many dedicated teachers work extra hours. One of the dirty little secrets of the system, however, is that there are many others who work close to, or exactly at, the contractual minimum. In the four different New York City public schools my children have attended, they have had several teachers who took the words in the contract about the length of the school day as gospel. Arriving in school just a few minutes before the children every morning, these teachers were usually out the door exactly at dismissal time. They rarely took any work home, grading at school the homework that they sporadically assigned. If the teachers worked all 10 of the preparation periods provided for in the contract, and if we deduct their 50-minute "duty-free" lunch periods, I estimate that they worked a maximum of 28 hours per week, or about 1000 hours per year.

This pervasive culture of mediocrity and time-serving takes a devastating toll on more ambitious teachers. That’s why charter schools usually have long waiting lists of teachers who want to leave school districts for the education-focused environment of charter schools.

With charter schools authorized in 33 states, and vouchers gaining momentum, the teachers' unions may not be quite as unassailable as they appear. Despite the millions of dollars they spend on public relations, they have been unable to convince the American people — certainly not New Yorkers — that their children's schools and classrooms are in good hands.

Gov. Pataki, who is on parents' side on this issue, should stand firm. Charter schools must have the freedom to focus on educating our children, not on work rules. That's what freedom from the UFT’s "we don't do windows" contract and from the "work-to-rule" culture is all about.

©1998 New York Post

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