The danger of school autonomy

A recent report funded by the Boston Foundation and the Center for Collaborative Education, a pro-Pilot School organization, recommends that the Boston Public School system grant more autonomy to individual schools.

Which raises the question: autonomy relative to whom? According to the Globe:

The premise of the recommendation is that schools best know the unique needs of their student populations and what measures might hold the most promise in boosting achievement. That, in turn, means the schools should have maximum latitude to make decisions regarding budgeting, staffing, curriculum, and length of school day, instead of being hemmed in by central offices or union contracts, the report concludes.

This might sound nice in theory, but being anti-teachers’-union is anti-student. The less bargaining power the teachers have, the lower the prevailing pay, and that in turn means some of the most promising young people take their talents elsewhere, instead of deciding to teach our children. If we want the best we have to pay more, just like the private sector.

But instead, teachers have been under a lot of pressure lately to teach for peanuts as a labor of love. Indeed, a pro-Pilot article featured on the Boston Foundation webpage quotes one teacher who takes the “love” bait:

“I care about my union,” Mr. Ali said, “but there are contractual complications. The union is advocating for us, but the conversation is too narrowly confined, because it’s all about money. Teachers don’t become teachers for the money.”

But teaching is a career. People who don’t do things for the money are called volunteers.

Are teachers’ unions the only way that teachers can receive a good salary? Not necessarily — but they’re certainly the best way for teachers to keep it.

Just take a look at North Carolina. Writes parent and university professor Deborah R. Gerhardt,

As recently as 2008, North Carolina paid teachers better than half the nation. Things can change quickly, especially if you’re not looking. Now, the brand that attracted us — “the education state” — sounds like a grim joke. After six years of no real raises, we have fallen to 46th in teacher pay.

She describes how North Carolina teachers have suffered a pay freeze, the loss of tenure, and the loss of higher salaries for those with graduate degrees.

Also in North Carolina? An interdiction on collective bargaining for teachers. These teachers who build their lives around the idea of an okay salary and some paltry benefits can see it all go downhill in a matter of years. No unions means no stability.

So what does this mean for students? Are they thriving in the union-free North Carolina school system? Not so much — teachers in North Carolina aren’t passively accepting these changes. They’re leaving — and who can blame them? But this flight increases the student to teacher ratio, making things more difficult for remaining teachers and resulting in worse education for students.

And the report doesn’t want to eliminate the influence of teachers’ unions in just a few schools. “The Boston foundation seeks to extend the kinds of autonomies enjoyed by charter schools, Pilot Schools, … and Turnaround Schools to all schools in Boston,” writes Paul S. Grogen of the Boston Foundation in the report.

As both the Globe article and the report itself mention, about a third of Boston schools are already in the general category of union-busting “innovative” schools. Why do we need more? If this movement is really about offering parents the choice, let’s include the choice for traditional schools.

Center for Collaborative Education director Dan French writes in Keeping the Promise?: The Debate over Charter Schools that under the Pilot School model he favors, “Teachers who work in Pilot Schools are exempt from teacher union contract work rules, while still receiving union salary, benefits, and accrual of seniority within the district.” The best of both worlds? Not quite. Pilot schools actively work to hamstring the unions; if all of Boston adopts the Pilot School model, those benefits will disappear as soon as backs are turned.

French also writes, “Teachers voluntarily choose to work at Pilot Schools.” Certainly. Just like teachers voluntarily choose to work in traditional public schools. But organizations like French’s want to spread their model citywide so that Boston teachers have nowhere to go, if they’re not interested in the non-traditional system.

I guess this is a good thing for schools statewide, who, if the efforts of these organizations succeed in Boston, should soon see an influx in talented teachers escaping the BPS system.

In the Boston Foundation article, French refers to Pilot Schools as “Laboratories for innovation.” One wonders who the lab rats are.


Update (July 2, 2014):

Following several comments and emails about this article, I would like to clarify a few things.

It appears that this article does not do enough to differentiate between Charter and Pilot schools. It was never my intention to suggest that the two are interchangeable. Unlike Charter schools, Pilot schools remain under local jurisdiction. Because it may not have been clear, in the entry I referred to from Keeping The Promise?: The Debate over Charter Schools, Dan French is arguing for autonomous schools as a better alternative to charter schools.

I received an email from Mr. French himself, who pointed out that unions were involved in negotiations for the creation of pilot schools in Boston. This is important to bear in mind when examining the issue, since it means that the establishment of pilot schools in Boston was not a unilateral decision but did involve negotiation. In fact, the BTU has its own pilot school.

When I asked for a statement, he elaborated both on his stance when it comes to school autonomy and on the details of the report. He emphasized the importance of teachers having a say. “The ones who are held accountable for student performance should be the ones who make the decisions,” he wrote.

However, autonomy is only a teacher empowerment strategy if there are structures in place to guarantee teacher voice in decision making at the school level. For autonomous schools, this should mean teacher representation on governing boards, teacher voice in hiring administrators and other teachers, teacher voice in determining curriculum and assessments, etc. In Boston, we even have two autonomous schools led by teachers – BTU Pilot School and Lyndon Pilot School.

Autonomy should also be a choice made by the educators in the school, that is, educators should be able to choose whether they want their school to gain additional autonomies or not. Both the Pilot and Innovation school models require a two-thirds positive faculty vote to become an autonomous school.

However, certain basic autonomies benefit everyone. Boston’s move several years ago away from a staffing allocation model for traditional schools (in which 90-95% of a school’s budget was fixed) to a student weighted funding formula (in which money follows the student and the school has control over all the funds) benefited all schools. Similarly, my guess is that most schools would like to have autonomy over curriculum and assessment decisions. For example, there are a number of traditional schools (as well as autonomous schools) in Boston that would prefer to use a different formative assessment than the district’s mandated predictive assessments, because they don’t match the school’s unique curriculum.

Last note on autonomy. Autonomy does not guarantee a successful school; but it does provide more conditions that a school can use to its advantage.

So what the report recommends is that more general autonomies be extended to all schools, while those schools that want a greater level of autonomy and are at a readiness level be able to pursue gaining more formal autonomy status.

In addition to its involvement in Pilot schools, the BTU also negotiated for the creation of the Discovery school model, which is an innovative school that allows collective bargaining.

I maintain my position that autonomous schools restricting collective bargaining cannot and should not be the only model.

I apologize for any confusion this article has generated, and I want to thank Dan French for taking the time to give such a kind and thoughtful response.

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