Cutting Provisions In Union Contracts Could Free Funds

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007

U.S. public schools could have as much as $77 billion more a year to improve teaching if they reduced spending on seniority pay increases, teacher's aides, class size limits and other measures often found in teacher union contracts, a new study contends.

The report from the Washington-based think tank Education Sector analyzed research on eight common provisions of contracts that require schools to spend substantial sums but have what the report called "a weak or inconsistent relationship with student learning."

The provisions include salary increases based on years of experience or educational credentials; professional development days; sick and personal days; class size limits; use of teacher's aides; and generous health and retirement benefits.

Teachers union officials sharply disputed the report's findings. School administrators and school board representatives said that although they would like more flexibility in the use of funds, there was little evidence that cutting such provisions would raise achievement.

"I believe that teachers will not trust our good intentions and find a system that eliminates the current pay structure an organization to avoid," said Robert G. Smith, Arlington County school superintendent.

The Education Sector is supported by several foundations, including those funded by the Gates, Hewlett and Kauffman families.

The report, written by University of Washington researcher Marguerite Roza, called the $77 billion spent on the eight provisions "frozen assets" that could be better spent elsewhere.

"This is not excess money that could be withdrawn from the public education system with no impact on student learning, but rather money that might be spent differently and with great effect," she wrote.

Analyzing seniority-based salary raises, Roza wrote that "studies show that individual teachers are less effective in their first year of teaching than later in their careers, but improvement tends to plateau after only five years or so, and may even decline as teachers approach retirement."

Roza suggested that more could be spent to raise minimum salaries to recruit highly qualified younger educators or to hire teachers to tutor low-performing students after school.

Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the report was "on thin ice for its sweeping -- and often inaccurate" assertions.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, said, "Research has shown us time and time again that low salaries drive committed people from the teaching profession." He added: "Simply put, we need lawmakers to fully fund public education."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company