On The Agenda: Improving U.S. Schools

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is gathering together the heads of the country's two major teachers unions and leaders from 150 school districts in Denver this week to talk about how to work together on improving schools.

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan is trying to bridge a wide and bitter gap between school reformers and teachers unions. This week in Denver, Duncan is bringing together unions and representatives from 150 school districts.

They'll be trying to move past disputes that have blocked reforms and resulted in a lot of finger-pointing, as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: For well over a year now, the debate over school reform has been more like a schoolyard brawl. So you could say this summit is like an overdue time-out.

ARNE DUNCAN: I wouldn't characterize this as a time-out at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DUNCAN: I'd characterize this as a chance for doing great collaborative work together.

SANCHEZ: Education Secretary Arne Duncan says his focus is on raising student achievement and making sure union contracts don't get in the way of that.

DUNCAN: Many of these collective bargaining agreements aren't working for teachers. They're not working for superintendents. They're not working for the board. If they're not working for adults, then I promise you they're not working for children.

SANCHEZ: Both Duncan and President Obama have complained that sometimes, union agreements hinder reforms, like linking teacher evaluations and pay to students' performance, extending the school day or school year and firing incompetent teachers.

Dennis Van Roekel, head of the National Education Association, concedes the administration has pressured unions to yield in areas that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: If there's a better way to look at alternative compensation systems, we're willing to sit down with administration, school board and employees. It's an honest conversation, not a debate about whether to accept someone else's ideas.

SANCHEZ: Van Roekel's counterpart at the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, says the prevailing view that teachers' collective bargaining rights are an obstacle to reform is dead wrong.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Collective bargaining, actually, can be the vehicle for transformative change, but that requires actually working with the people who teach. Teacher bashing is not going to help kids learn the skills they need for today's economy.

SANCHEZ: School boards, for their part, want collective bargaining to reflect their state's economic reality. With deep cuts in federal and state education budgets looming, Anne Bryant, president of the National School Boards Association, says local boards desperately need more concessions from unions.

ANNE BRYANT: We are really headed into and already are in very tough financial times, and a lot is going to be put on the table.

SANCHEZ: Teacher salaries, health insurance benefits, pension plans, all of this needs to be scrutinized, says Bryant. To show how it can be done, the two-day conference will showcase a handful of school districts that have negotiated successfully with unions.

But this show-and-tell approach could fall flat, says Mike Antonucci. He's written about teacher-labor contracts for the past 14 years.

MIKE ANTONUCCI: There's going to be a lot of hope and rhetoric about how if it could be done here, it could be done in your district, too, which is not exactly true.

SANCHEZ: In other words, says Antonucci, the cookie-cutter approach to collective bargaining just doesn't work in the real world, because school systems have such different needs. That's not to say this summit isn't important. The Obama administration wants to continue to look firm and resolute in challenging teachers' unions. And unions, says Antonucci, can no longer afford to be seen as always saying no, no, no.

ANTONUCCI: They have to, at least, appear in public as being moveable on these issues. Otherwise, it's going to be easier and easier to push them aside and say, well, if you're not on board, you're going to get run over.

SANCHEZ: Threats and coercion are not what this labor management summit is about, says Secretary Duncan. It's about collaboration.

DUNCAN: I think we have an obligation to open this dialogue and to see where it takes us.

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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