Student Achievement Hurt by Milwaukee Teacher Contract

Published December 1, 1997

Collective bargaining of teacher contracts in the Milwaukee Public Schools has had a negative impact on student achievement, according to a new study by former Milwaukee Schools Superintendent Howard L. Fuller. The secrecy of the bargaining process, coupled with a “nearly impenetrable” contract, raises a serious question about exactly “Who is in charge?”

Collective bargaining between the Milwaukee Public Schools and the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, explains Fuller, has undermined two important pre-conditions for learning: high teacher morale and job satisfaction, and a school-based atmosphere of high expectations and cooperation. His findings are reported in “The Milwaukee Public Schools’ Teacher Union Contract: Its History, Content, and Impact on Education,” issued by the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Despite contract gains–such as substantial pay increases, more staff support, and better job security–MTEA and MPS still have a hostile relationship, notes Fuller. Moreover, neither the school district nor the union has put in place a productive method for evaluating teachers, and thus those who need help don’t get it, and those who are ineffective are not removed.

But the key difficulty the contract, says Fuller, is its complexity. An agreement that in 1964 required just 18 pages has become “a complex, sometimes impenetrable document” of 174 pages plus almost 1,700 amendments developed since 1971.

The complete “contract behind the contract” consists of not only the 1,700 amendments (the “Memoranda of Understanding”), but also nearly 300 grievance-arbitration rulings and various state declaratory rulings–a total of more than 2,000 documents that interpret, amend, or waive contract provisions.

“No more than a handful of largely anonymous management and union staff understand them,” note Fuller and his coauthors, public policy analyst George A. Mitchell and Wisconsin Policy Research Institute research director Michael E. Hartmann.

The complexity of the contract and its amendatory provisions concentrate substantial power and authority in the hands of a “small number of largely anonymous people.” “This includes an array of private arbitrators whose binding rulings may involve contract interpretations never intended by the parties,” the study points out. Indeed, “elected school board members, senior administrators, elected union officers, and teachers” are often at the mercy of these individuals “for interpretations and advice on arcane contract provisions.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].