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Ties That Bind

By Benjamin DeGrow

A Denver school looking to overcome some steep challenges has asked to be liberated from the bureaucratic rules holding it back. Only one very formidable roadblock remains before this burgeoning freedom movement: the teachers union.

Some of its own members can’t figure out why.

On December 8, Bruce Randolph School principal Dr. Kristin Waters quietly asked Denver Public Schools (DPS) and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) to be relieved of many burdensome rules in the negotiated contract. For example, being forced to accept a teacher because of seniority rather than quality or to limit hours spent inside the classroom are not often prescriptions for success.

To take effect, the waivers need endorsements from both the district and the union.

Parents, community groups, and education reformers have rallied to back Bruce Randolph. In a secret ballot, two-thirds of the building’s teachers affirmed their support. Following a public debate, the DPS school board unanimously approved the request.

Yet after a misleading legal memo failed to scare teachers into rejecting the autonomy agreement, DCTA officials rejected nearly all the requested waivers. They couched their words by expressing interest “in exploring the concept of an autonomous neighborhood school.” They also called for the formation of a task force and new collective bargaining rules to solve the problem, hardly a promising solution.

Not long ago, high-poverty Bruce Randolph was the lowest-rated middle school in all of Colorado. Waters and her team have made headway in turning things around. But their efforts to succeed since have collided with many of the top-down rules they face.

Waters and her team of educators simply are seeking to help their students. But in the process they also have opened a major crack in a too-rigid education system. Local union officials want to patch up the crack. They prefer tight controls to the promise of truly bold innovation.

Bruce Randolph’s DCTA building representative told newspaper reporters that the union’s patronizing denial made teachers in the school “confused” and “disappointed,” and some even “outraged.” The teachers who pay for DCTA to represent them see firsthand the need to do something different for a school deeply challenged by poverty and low expectations. They must be wondering if they are getting their money’s worth.

Manual High School, facing similar challenges, has followed Bruce Randolph’s example and filed its own waiver request. The school re-opened in 2007 with new leadership after a botched reform effort ended up siphoning away students until the district decided to close its doors.

But DCTA officials say they aren’t willing to listen to requests from Manual or any other Denver school, not until they are convinced autonomy will work for everyone. The union is reluctant to give up its share of power over the rules governing district schools, even though the “one-size-fits-all” approach its leaders tout is holding back some students.

Not every school is ready and able to embrace autonomy. But that should not stop the schools that can.

Both Bruce Randolph and Manual are adding grades as part of their reform plans. They need the ability to hire quality teachers and to draw up budgets earlier than current rules allow. School principals’ hands are tied by procedures, many of them drawn up from the best of intentions. But decades of good intentions have failed to solve Colorado’s education problems.

State lawmakers from both parties have made a similar diagnosis. Democrat Senate President Peter Groff and two Republican colleagues are sponsoring legislation that would greatly smooth the way to set schools free from prescriptive state regulations and restrictive collective bargaining provisions. Conceived before either Bruce Randolph or Manual took their bold leaps, the Innovation Schools Act of 2008 nevertheless embodies their spirit.

The two Denver schools are blessed with strong, experienced, and gifted leaders. But most traditional public school principals lack the range of skills needed to handle the responsibility that comes with greater freedom. Thus autonomy alone offers no quick and easy fix.

However, a success story from a liberated Bruce Randolph or Manual just might inspire other schools to seek similar empowerment on behalf of the students and parents that choose them. The pressure to change the system then would come from the bottom up.

These two schools deserve encouragement to continue advancing their cause fearlessly, regardless of whether local union officials decide to join them.

This article originally appeared in the Colorado Daily on February 10, 2008.