Education Groups Meet at Labor Summit

By Lawrence Hardy

School board members, union representatives, and administrators -- as well as state and national associations representing all three groups -- came together in Denver in February in an extraordinary call for more cooperation among labor and management in schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the host of the Department of Education’s Conference on Labor-Management Collaboration, said the 150 districts that attended the two-day conference were the leaders of what will become a nationwide effort to strengthen schools and raise student achievement.

“We have a whole set of districts that are, frankly, going to lead the country where it needs to go,” Duncan said, adding later: “This is going to be a movement.”

Both Duncan and NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant emphasized that such a movement must come from the ground up. “[It’s] the opposite of ‘one size fits all,’” Duncan said.

They also emphasized that the Denver conference is only the beginning.

“This stuff takes time,” said Bryant, who was joined at the conference by NSBA Past President Earl C. Rickman III and the leaders of 10 state school boards associations. “It takes trust between administrators, school board members, and teachers.”

Some of that trust has frayed recently amid the national debate over issues such as using student test scores in teacher evaluations. But, during a February news conference, Bryant said that NSBA, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) -- representing key groups in these discussions -- have signed on to a document pledging to work together on any incentive pay plans proposed. She said these 11 points -- the Guiding Principles for Teacher Incentive Compensation Plans -- will become a model for how school districts deal with this difficult issue.

AASA Executive Director Daniel A. Domenech agreed that collaboration is essential. Find a high-performing school district, he said, and “invariably, you’re going to find a situation where you have an outstanding relationship between labor, management, and the board of education.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel noted the contrast between the atmosphere at the conference and the mood in statehouses in Florida, Indiana, New Jersey, and other states in which anti-teacher tenure bills are being written.

“You can’t help but note the disconnect between here and in the statehouses,” Van Roekel said.

Added Weingarten: “When we actively work together and find common ground, we transform not only schools, but school districts. This conference shows what’s possible -- but it’s a toxic time.”

No one suggested that tackling controversial issues such as tenure or teacher compensation would be easy. But at a forum at the meeting, Bryant said that focusing on student achievement is the place to start.

“Once you focus on the main issue, many of these subissues go away,” Bryant said.

However, she said that, in order to truly concentrate on student achievement, school districts must have community support -- something that is not a given, considering that 75 percent of adults don’t have children in the public schools.

“We’ve got to bring along the public,” Bryant said.

Lawrence Hardy (lhardy@nsba.org) is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.