Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: Clovis schools are doing fine without teachers union

Coach Tim DeRuyter speaks to a fifth-grade class at Gettysburg Elementary School in Clovis for Read Across America Day last month. Clovis Unified is the biggest school district in California without a teachers union.
Coach Tim DeRuyter speaks to a fifth-grade class at Gettysburg Elementary School in Clovis for Read Across America Day last month. Clovis Unified is the biggest school district in California without a teachers union. Fresno Bee

What would a California school district be like if it jettisoned its teachers union?

That question, once hypothetical, is now real. With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court is now divided 4-4 on legal challenges to the funding model that supports teachers and other public employee unions. So if the country elects a Republican president this fall, he’d likely appoint a new conservative justice who would weaken teachers unions so much that some might disappear from some school districts.

What would that mean for our schools? It’s hard to know. But California offers one fascinating example: the Clovis Unified School District.

Clovis Unified is by far the largest school district in California without a teachers union. Covering Clovis and part of Fresno, it’s the 16th largest school district in California, with 42,000 students, 49 schools and 5,000 employees. About half of its children receive free or reduced-price lunches, and there’s no ethnic majority among the student body.

Parents, teachers and administrators in Clovis are proud of their schools. But they don’t brag – publicly, at least – about their lack of a teachers union. This isn’t because they want a union, I’ve found on visits. It’s because they’re skeptical that their one-of-a-kind structure could be a model for anyone else.

Clovis Unified teachers and administrators see their district as having a peculiar and auspicious history, starting with Floyd “Doc” Buchanan, the superintendent from 1960 until 1991. In the 1970s, California’s teachers unions won the right to represent educators throughout the state.

But Buchanan, who was deeply respected by teachers, resisted. And teachers voted against union representation. Instead, Clovis teachers formed a “faculty senate” to gain a bigger role in governing the district. Teachers were elected to represent each school and in turn elected officers for the senate, which was designed “to be an effective advocate for teachers at all levels of policymaking, procedures and expenditures, in partnership with our administration, fellow employees, and community.”

In California, state law governs most of what happens in school districts, including teacher tenure, so Clovis could only be so different. But, as the faculty senate evolved, teachers exerted more power by forming committees that worked with administrators to determine benefits and wages, the school calendar and curriculum. “If there’s a committee, we’re on it,” says Duane Goudy, the faculty senate president. “If there’s a meeting, we are part of it.”

This collaborative system requires the district administration to have an open door, and thus inspires consensus and closeness to the community. And the system provides crucial flexibility in bad times. During the Great Recession, the district avoided layoffs of full-time employees and cuts to the school year because teachers agreed to impose a 2 percent pay cut and three furlough days on themselves.

Of course, there are drawbacks. Privately, teachers say committee meetings can waste time. It can be hard for administrators hired from outside the district to adapt to the Clovis culture. And even staunch believers in the faculty senate approach wonder whether a system that relies on face-to-face meetings can survive as the district continues to grow. They say it’s already hard to make changes quickly because so many people must be consulted.

But the system is likely to endure, in part because the district gets results. Clovis Unified performs well above average academically and in attendance. For the rest of us, Clovis Unified suggests that school districts without teachers unions won’t be hells – or paradises. They could even be places where teachers can be true partners in running school districts.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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