No Way Out?

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By Kate Walsh, President

It's starting to become apparent that the "highly qualified teacher" requirements in No Child Left Behind may clash with districts' collective bargaining agreements. In a story out of Maryland this week that may portend the future for many districts, Superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, Joe Hairston, is under fire from the local teachers' union for not allowing teachers to transfer out of the district's more difficult schools in their quests for cushier assignments--unless these schools have a highly qualified teacher on deck to take their place.

The local teachers' union is claiming that teachers are being “held hostage??? by the new rule, while district officials are arguing that their hands are tied in order for Baltimore County to meet NCLB's requirements. The federal law requires that a district's high-needs schools must employ as many highly qualified teachers as its more affluent schools.

Who’s right? The truth is that both sides are within the current miserable context. Hairston's done the right and courageous thing and Baltimore teachers have every right to be angry about it.

High-poverty schools bleed experienced teachers. Across the country the pattern is tiresomely the same: new and inexperienced teachers get assigned to the worst schools, kill themselves with stress to make a difference in kids' lives, and end up bailing out for greener pastures when it's clear they're not making a difference. Absent that rare combination of stellar school leadership, effective curricula, and a corps group of effective veteran teachers, there really is no readily available remedy for this epidemic of failure.

With NCLB’s January 2006 teacher quality deadlines knocking at the door, district officials are left with an impossible job of staffing these schools. Practically speaking, they could provide incentives, in effect bribing experienced teachers to stay in inner-city classrooms (and Baltimore is thinking about adding those). But the problem with incentives is that they're usually too paltry, spread with far too much of an egalitarian flavor, to persuade anyone to do much of anything. What's left? Diktat.

It's too soon to tell what will happen in Baltimore County, whose actions may be played out in a lot of other school districts as NCLB's January 2006 deadline grows closer. But one thing is clear: NCLB is going to force some hands. While current collective bargaining agreements may be allowed to stand, federal officials are on record as saying that renegotiated agreements will have to accommodate the federal law. Perhaps when the dust settles, not only school administrators and teachers will be better served but, God willing, school children will be as well.