This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Teacher contract talks are an odd beast.
The teachers union names its price and the district weighs what it can afford, but missing from the room are the students and taxpayers who must live with the results. It’s akin to a seller and a banker negotiating a house sale without the buyer.
A new alliance of community groups aims to change that dynamic in the upcoming talks between the Tacoma School District and its teachers union.
If families and community leaders can’t be at the bargaining table, they at least want their words ringing in the negotiators’ ears.
The Vibrant Schools Tacoma Coalition is hoping to replicate the success of community groups in Seattle last year, who rallied support for district administrators’ efforts to link student test scores with teacher evaluations.
Tacoma has a lot of room for progress. Consider what coalition member Stand for Children found in its analysis of the 2009-2011 teacher contract:
• Tacoma’s salaries for entry-level teachers are some of the lowest in the region, an obstacle to attracting talented teachers that is exacerbated by the fact that Tacoma saves its biggest raises for veteran teachers.
• Tacoma doesn’t pay teachers who take difficult or hard-to-fill assignments more, nor does it reward teachers who demonstrate high performance.
• Only seven of the district’s 1,536 teachers were rated unsatisfactory in the 2009-10 school year. That number is so low partly because 70 percent of district’s teachers chose a “professional growth plan” in which they set their own goals, monitor their own progress toward those goals and are protected from consequences if they don’t achieve the goals.
• The Tacoma district has not fired a single tenured teacher for unsatisfactory performance in the past five years.
Vibrant Schools Tacoma is pushing for better teacher mentoring and training, more rigorous evaluations of teacher performance, a salary schedule that helps recruit and keep great teachers, and a clearer way to get rid of failing teachers.
The coalition also is lobbying for performance to play a role in layoffs, so that schools don’t lose some of their best and brightest merely because they are young.
The campaign comes at a critical time. The district’s three-year contract with teachers, set to take effect in September, will determine how the district manages increasingly scarce resources.
Teachers are the district’s single largest expense. They also are the single largest influence on student achievement within the district’s control.
A teacher contract that spends precious funds on teachers who make the biggest difference for students should be the district’s highest priority. Tacomans should insist on it.