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Teacher "Bumping" in Rhode Island: Contracts, State Law, and NCLB

The nation's smallest state certainly can't say it has a timid state education leader: Rhode Island Commissioner Peter McWalters is taking on the controversial issue of "bumping" in Providence schools.

Providence, like many other districts, operates under a collective bargaining agreement that handles hiring primarily through teacher preference and seniority: More-senior teachers can request transfers to open positions at other schools. After that, the central office slots the remaining teachers to open positions throughout the district.

Essentially, McWalters is directing the district to override this agreement. In a letter to Tom Brady, the Providence superintendent, he indicates that the district should shift hiring practices to the school level, where it should be based on student need and teacher effectiveness rather than preference or seniority. Teachers who want to work in schools would need to interview with principals, who would get to make the final say about whom they accept in their schools.

The new hiring system would occur in only 6 schools in its first years, McWalters said. "There are concerns that not every principal is ready to be the manager of his or her own [human-capital] system," McWalters told me in an interview on Friday.

Obviously, this raises some big legal questions, but McWalters thinks he has two good legal arguments.

First, a 1997 state law gives the commissioner of education progressive authority over schools' and districts' personnel, budget, and programs if schools don't meet performance benchmarks for three years. (Rhode Island had an accountability measure in place before the No Child Left Behind Act required all states to institute one.) Second, the "restructuring" portions of NCLB for districts and schools that continue to miss benchmarks requires alternate governance actions including the replacing of staff. Such actions are governed by state law.

Over time, McWalters said he's provided direction and asked the district to renegotiate parts of its agreement, but teacher turnover is still too high in the schools. "I’ve done that in very good faith for about five years in Providence ... so this is taking it to the next level, if you’ve achieved the following and there are still certain things you're not able to do," he said.

I've put in a call to Steve Smith, the head of the Providence Teachers Union, but haven't heard anything back. In a local story about this, though, Smith said the union "was not going to panic," and hoped to work with the district collaboratively. And the word on the street is that he and McWalters share a good relationship.

The local-level legal questions here are interesting, and there are even bigger implications for NCLB, where the school-restructuring language has never quite been put to this test. In fact, the national teachers' unions roundly criticized the Bush administration for floating a proposal in early 2007 to allow districts in restructuring to override collective bargaining.

"The importance of teacher assignment is obvious in the literature," McWalters said, when I asked if he was ready for potential legal battle and the resulting national attention. "If it brings us that challenge, maybe it's time for it."

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