Who’s for Innovation? Unions!

Last week we told the story of Milwaukee teachers who asked their union leaders to bargain for creating a new project-based school in the district. With the superintendent’s support, they created one.

There is a natural tension in bargaining between teachers unions and boards of education. Most boards will not even consider bargaining for policies or “professional issues.” They are a management right, they say. And yet, teachers are professionals and seek larger professional roles in the success of their schools.

Why can’t teachers make professionalization and policy change a bargainable issue? They can. And they have.

In his book Innovation and Improvement, Ted Kolderie cites examples. As early as 1985, Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, encouraged AFT locals to put proposals into the bargaining process. More recently, St. Paul teachers’ union leader Mary Cathryn Ricker did just that. Early in 2014 she bargained into the new contract with the St. Paul school board an agreement about class size, traditionally considered a policy matter for management, and a provision allowing an individual school to initiate “micro-bargaining” with the district for “redesign” of the school.

Progressive superintendents will respond. As my former Minnesota senate colleague Tom Nelson, a long-time district superintendent, has said, “Good superintendents feel coerced by the pressure for ‘sameness.’” Yet most realize they need to try new things.

What if school districts and their unions agreed to “try new things” just one school at a time? Imagine the possibilities.