A new online research tool from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) gives researchers, journalists, policy makers, and other education stakeholders a glimpse into the collective bargaining agreements for the 50 largest school systems in the United States–an idea that has some teachers’ advocates concerned about how the data might be used.

“Teacher Rules, Roles, and Rights,” with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, allows users to sort data from teacher contracts in hundreds of ways. NCTQ says its goal was to create a user-friendly and transparent source of information to help the public analyze and compare collective bargaining agreements in different markets as a way to stimulate discussion and spark school reform.

While many agree the site is a valuable resource, some teachers’ unions say the data are misleading, as users might look at the information without knowing all the details about state and local laws as they pertain to schools and their employees.

“The policies that govern the way schools operate, employees are hired, and students are taught are all found in collective bargaining agreements,” said Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group.

“These agreements are lengthy, complicated, and there are thousands of them around the country. NCTQ set out to empower the public by collecting all of the information and organizing it in one place. NCTQ believes that by comparing the information in the agreements, we can learn important details about how our schools work and what we can do to make them work better,” she said.

“We believe that transparency will lead to change. This tool puts the facts out there for all to see, which will help the public better understand what we can do to improve the quality of education in this country.”

With the database, users can compare a district’s teacher pay rates, school calendars, union rules, leaves of absence, evaluations, tenure, and much more with that of other large districts.

The database also can be used to identify trends in contracts across the country. For example, users can search to see if contracts that have the lowest teacher pay rates also tend to have weaker class-size requirements.

A search of the database also reveals valuable information about first-year starting teacher salaries. The annual salary for a fully certified, first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree in the Los Angeles Unified School District is $43,054; in Florida’s Dade County School District, it is $36,250.

In Nevada’s Clark County School District, the annual salary for a fully certified, first-year teacher with a master’s degree is $38,403. In the New York City Public Schools, that figure is $50,353.

The database is “fine for what it is, if you have some background into what contracts are, and the fact that there are differences in contracts,” said Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers. “You have to keep in mind that there are state laws that either allow or prohibit certain provisions, and [the database] doesn’t indicate that teachers or management tried to get something and there was no final agreement. It’s a picture, but not necessarily a complete picture.”

Other union representatives seem to echo Bass’s sentiments.

“With regard to the database and its transparency and availability, we think that’s a good thing,” said Bill Raabe, director of collective bargaining and member advocacy for the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teacher union. Raabe said the NEA wants reporters and others who visit the site to have an accurate picture of the data, and to do that, they must keep certain factors in mind aside from simple contract terms.

Users might wonder, for example, why certain issues–such as class size–aren’t addressed in a specific district’s teacher contract. “Some things that are not covered in the contracts might be addressed by a provision in a state’s law, so that might be why it doesn’t appear in the contract,” he said.

Another thing users should consider when reading the data is that, in some bargaining laws, there exist scope-of-bargaining clauses, which detail what can and can’t be negotiated. Items that aren’t included in these scope-of-bargaining clauses are things an employer does not have to discuss.

Visitors to the database should not just take the information at its face value, Raabe said, but should talk to participants in the bargaining to figure out what the contract language really means.

“The contract as you’re looking at the … database is a story starter, but it’s not the whole story,” he said.

The database contains collective bargaining agreements from the nation’s 50 largest public school systems–districts that reportedly serve 8.2 million students, hire nearly 500,000 teachers, and operate nearly 11,000 schools.

NCTQ hopes to expand its selection of school districts, add more data, and incorporate state laws and other policies that set the rules for school personnel in the future. This spring, NCTQ will add data on teacher benefits, dismissal policies, grievance procedures, and class size to the database, the group said.