The Elephant in the Room: Contracts that Protect, Reward Bad Teachers

An elephant in the room when discussing publicly-funded charters vs. traditional public schools is collective bargaining—union vs. non-union. I think it is time we face the issue head-on and begin a charter-by-charter, district-by-district conversation. One way to achieve this goal is to experiment with “thin” contracts that forego tenure and seniority-based layoffs, and provide opportunities for performance pay based on results—not just results from state tests.

Last month, the Board of Education convened a special meeting on charter schools that was attended by more than 60 people. During public comments, a trustee from another district said that I sounded anti-union in my comments.

I told her I have been a strong union supporter my entire life, especially during my public sector career. In fact, I was once union president, vice-president and grievance chair for my local California Teachers Association (CTA) union.

In the late 1970s, I used a bullhorn on the back of a pickup truck to rally teachers to support a pending work action against the superintendent and board for an equitable collectively bargained contract. I was a dues paying member of the NEA/CTA union for 13 years. Then I was hired as a public school administrator, serving as principal in an elementary and middle schools for over 20 years.

As principal, I was a member of a professional association, the Association of California School Administrators, and was no longer allowed to be a member of a union. As a principal I had very few rights and was an at-will employee.

In that role I paid attention to the CTA, SEIU and CSEA contracts. I believed that collectively bargained contracts were sacrosanct, a playbook for the rules of the education “game.” I respected the bargaining process and participated from the management side of the table for many of my 18 years as a school principal. There were times, however, I felt the union contract was placing the interests of adults over the needs of students. I have always believed students must be the first priority as we allocate our scarce public funds.

It is interesting to note that today, all but one charter management organization in California (GreenDot), to my knowledge, is non-union. All charter schools received public funds and operate without union agreements. By contrast, all traditional California public school teachers are unionized through either the CTA or California Federation of Teachers.

What I said at last month’s special charter school board meeting is that I am not anti-union. I am against policies that do not put students first, such as current tenure laws and seniority-based layoff procedures. Too many times the extra-negotiated dollars are what I perceive as a gift of public funds. They are awarded for longevity and accrued units beyond a BA degree (traditionally called “step and column” increases) or advanced degrees that are not related to the work one is hired to perform.

Green Dot, a charter management organization headquartered in California, has pioneered the use of a “thin” contract. One was negotiated in 2009 by Green Dot and the United Federation of Teachers in New York, and renegotiated again two years ago. The “thin” contract gives the teachers a little less job security through changes for tenure and seniority-based layoffs language. In addition, teachers are paid more through evaluation systems that mirror Race to The Top protocols of value-added measures, which CTA has vehemently opposed.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. And when they’re older, teachers who can’t compete with college grads should be cast off like other, less useful Americans in the “thin” private sector.

    Charter schools should not get school district money because they do not have to follow the rules regular schools do- they are without special needs anchors.  Charter schools are thinly veiled money grabs for anti-Union rich folks- despite what you portray, Sir.

  2. As a former teacher, I think the tenure system as it stands is awful.  The point of tenure is to ensure academic freedom, but I don’t see academic freedom as a necessity for elementary, middle and high school teachers.  They are required to teach the State Standards.  Tenure should be for college level only.  I’d say 8 out of 10 teachers aren’t good at teaching. Some of them may improve with incentive such as having to actually do a good job, and the rest will go away.  Without tenure, you could adjust pay based on performance as well.  Finally, if you really want to pay teachers more (and under the current system, I’d say teachers shouldn’t make more until pay is linked to performance), get rid of the County Office of Education.  We already have a state board and school districts.  Let the state give money directly to the school districts.  What is the point of the County offices?

  3. Focusing on firing teachers is the wrong place to start. Why exhaust good political will with both teachers and the teachers unions when there is both common ground, and more urgency, around reforming how we train new and existing teachers.

    Firing teachers more teachers won’t fix much at scale, since the root problem is that we don’t have enough supply of highly effective teachers. The county has a great deal of existing responsibility over teacher training.

    The greatest innovation the charter movement has provided is not their ability to fire teachers, but their ability to provide effective training to their teachers (see charters like Uncommon Schools or Achievement First). Unions aren’t against that innovation.  Start with the training, and you’ll have fewer teachers to fire, and less resistance in removing marginal teachers.

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