Chicago, IL: Collective bargaining agreements in Illinois’ public schools are dynamic and innovative, reflecting both the needs of teachers and the financial challenges faced by school districts, according to a new study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) and the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI).
“There is substantial variation in working conditions, innovation, and flexibility across Illinois’ school districts,” said study co-author, PMCR’s Director, and University of Illinois Professor Robert Bruno. “The fact is that a majority of districts have flexibility for teachers and district administration to make the best decisions for students, demonstrating that contracts negotiated by teachers’ unions are not as rigid as they’re often portrayed.”
The report analyzes nearly two-thirds of all Illinois’ public school districts collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and introduces a district innovation and flexibility index based on nine indicators: school improvement days, planning periods, professional learning committees, district leadership teams, class size maximums, intra-district reassignment, academic freedom, procedures to deal with parental concerns, and memoranda of understanding. For example, 87% of districts have planning periods for teachers to prepare for instruction and 46% have professional learning committees that encourage teacher collaboration. In total, 74% of Illinois’ school districts had a moderate-to-high degree of workplace flexibility.
“Collective bargaining agreements are like constitutions for local school districts, allowing workplace decisions to be made jointly by teachers and the district’s administration,” said study co-author and ILEPI’s Midwest Researcher Jill Gigstad. “As a result, public schools are among the most democratic workplaces in Illinois, and no two CBAs are exactly the same.”
Recently, some teachers in Illinois have gone on strike to bargain for better working conditions and better environments for student learning. The Chicago Teachers Union went on a 15-day strike in October of 2019. The strike ended with a deal that included salary increases, additional funding to lower class sizes, and an agreement to hire support staff– such as a nurse and a social worker for every school.
“Going on strike and negotiating a new contract aren’t the only ways to bring about change,” noted study co-author and ILEPI’s Policy Director Frank Manzo IV. “Many districts have memoranda of understanding, which allow districts and teachers the ability to modify their CBAs and address subject matters as they come up; 27% of districts in Illinois have at least one memorandum of understanding.”
The researchers also find that Illinois’ public school teachers are highly-educated and have wide access to professional development opportunities to improve their teaching skills. Three-fifths (58%) of all public school teachers in Illinois have master’s degrees. In addition, 55% of all school district CBAs reimburse teachers for the cost of professional development training and 59% stipulate a number of “institute days,” typically 4 days per year, to provide training on new techniques and new technologies.
“Professional development activities, institute days, and similar items in school district CBAs all help teachers implement the best educational practices for their students,” said Gigstad. “These contract provisions directly improve educational achievement outcomes for students.”
The authors concluded that a number of contract provisions enable creative and collaborative problem-solving in school district CBAs. By and large, Illinois’ school districts have flexibility to modify their contracts and teachers have autonomy to make professional decisions in their classrooms.
“Every year, more than 3,800 public schools across Illinois educate more than 2 million children,” concluded Bruno. “The innovation and flexibility that are produced in collective bargaining agreements demonstrate that the process of collective bargaining remains a great way to ensure that students are receiving the best possible education to prepare them for college, for careers, and for successful lives as informed U.S. citizens.”
The Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois investigates the working conditions in today’s economy and works to provide research, analysis and education on public policies that will reduce poverty, prevent discrimination, create more stable forms of employment, and promote middle-class jobs.
The Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) is a nonprofit research organization which promotes thoughtful economic growth for businesses and working families.