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Unions and school districts become political bedfellows

In school districts across the country, administrators and teachers unions are increasingly working together to address challenges.

Districts are seeking help from unions on pressing political issues, including how to address Dreamer students who are concerned about deportation after the Trump administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

This has brought the two groups closer together, with a common goal of helping vulnerable students, says Mary Kusler, senior director of the National Education Association’s Center for Advocacy.

In Austin, Texas, the NEA helped fund an effort called Know Your Rights that provides practical information to students and parents on how to respond to immigration enforcement. And the union’s Office of General Counsel has guided districts on transgender policies and sanctuary school rules, Kusler says.

“When very vulnerable children are under threat by the policies coming out of the administration, it makes everybody really focused on helping those students succeed,” Kusler says.

Bargaining trends

In many states, collective bargaining “for the common good” has gained popularity, Kusler says. “Districts are not just going to the table to talk about traditional negotiable items such as salary and benefits,” she adds. “Instead, they’re working with their community and other stakeholders to figure out what they need to have in place so that students can succeed.”

The bargaining process now covers after-school programs, more well-rounded curricula that include the arts, and time for teacher collaboration. In 2013, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers in St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota began holding meetings with parents and community members to create a shared vision for schools.

The district did not initially want to bargain on issues besides wages and benefits, but the union stood its ground and won expanded preschool programming, reduced class sizes, reduced testing, and improved student access to nurses and social workers.

Relationships between unions and administrators can be cooperative when both look at working together as an opportunity to help students, says Alex Rowell, research associate for economic policy at the Center for American Progress.

“It comes down to building trust between unions and administrators, and coming to the table focusing on students and making education better,” he says.

Local disputes

In some states, however, an adversarial relationship still exists, making collaboration difficult. For example, more than six years after Wisconsin all but eliminated its collective bargaining process, teachers there are still feeling the impact.

Median salaries and benefits fell by more than 12 percent, or about $10,800, between 2011 and the 2015-16 school year, according to a November 2017 report from the Center for American Progress.

Iowa passed a similar law in 2017, and a bill in Florida proposed to strip collective bargaining power from unions that can’t get 50 percent of their workforce to enroll. As of this writing, the Florida bill is awaiting a Senate vote.

“Unions are being targeted as states are struggling to fund schools or make their budgets,” says Rowell, co-author of the report. “They see what they’re paying teachers, and want to try to get some money out of that.”