Poorer schools slighted again
The teachers and the administrators have left the bargaining table for now.
They'll be back soon, though. Because in the rush to settlement that restored 24 endangered days to the public-school calendar, one bargaining point was left on the table.
Issues surrounding the Portland school district's teacher-transfer policies remain unresolved. You might think that with budget cutbacks everywhere and the possibility of a first-ever teachers' strike looming, teacher-transfer issues were an easily overlooked point.
Maybe they were; maybe they shouldn't have been.
In the joyous aftermath of the settlement, few have contemplated the precariousness of the latest truce between the administrators and the teachers union. At the end of the day, the union gave up a little salary ground in exchange for unchanged health-care coverage.
Unions are often unbending in their demands for pay increases. The Portland teachers' offer of 10 'free' days, and their acceptance of a 5 percent pay cut, were brilliant public relations moves.
Overlooked in this was the transfer issue. For families in schools where achievement has lagged, the celebration of the past 10 days comes with a footnote. Low-achieving schools got stuck with the same restrictive teacher hiring and transfer rules that leave them with less experienced, and sometimes less able, teachers Ñ at least until the next teachers contract.
Last year, when the Educational Crisis Team Ñ a coalition of low-income and minority parents Ñ threatened to pull their children out of the Portland Public Schools system, one of the issues was the inability of some schools to retain talented teachers. At the time, I wrote that without teachers union support on any agreement reached with the school administrator (Boycott won't help our schools, Jan. 29, 2002), there would be no way to resolve what is essentially a personnel matter. Here we are after a year and a marathon bargaining session Ñ and the issue still hasn't been resolved.
Now, however, the teachers' next battle may come not from the administration, but from minority parents who think achievement issues matter in the larger scheme of things. Their question remains: How do you recruit and retain teachers with demonstrated capacity and competence to failing schools where achievement is lowest Ñ all without abrogating the restrictive personnel rules supported by the union?
Currently, the district's minority students are taught by the district's least experienced teachers. A Tribune analysis of data on Portland's teachers from the 2000-2001 school year details how stark the differences are. It shows that schools in the city's poorest neighborhoods Ñ schools where 90 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches Ñ the average overall experience level among 3,196 teachers was 11 years and the average salary slightly more than $44,000. In schools located in more affluent neighborhoods, those figures rose to 15.1 years and an average salary of $52,000.
The analysis raised a relevant question. How can teaching and learning in the city's neediest schools ever be substantially improved if the most experienced and best paid teachers continue to migrate from those schools?
We won't know until we finally can play the last card left on the bargaining table.