Teaching Profession

In Little Rock, Ark., Teachers to Strike for Collective Bargaining Power

By Madeline Will — November 13, 2019 3 min read
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Teachers in Little Rock, Ark., will be on the picket lines Thursday for only the second time in the school district’s history.

The Little Rock Education Association has planned the one-day strike in protest of a state panel’s decision last month to strip the local union of its collective bargaining power. Before the union’s contract expired Oct. 31, the Little Rock school district had been the only place in Arkansas where the local teachers’ union had bargaining power, according to the Associated Press.

The Little Rock union, which has about 1,800 members, is also protesting the state’s control of the school district. The Arkansas State Board of Education took over the district in 2015 when six of its 48 schools were considered to be in “academic distress” because of low test scores. Last month, the board voted to return limited local control to the district when a new local school board is elected in November 2020.

Still, the exact details of the return to local control haven’t been hammered out yet. The union timed its one-day strike to coincide with the state board’s monthly meeting, where policymakers will discuss the future governance of the district, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“What we would like to see out of the state board meeting is a motion to return full local control to the Little Rock School District immediately with a board that has full decision-making authority,” said LREA President Teresa Knapp Gordon at a news conference, according to the Democrat-Gazette.

See also: How Little Rock Fits Into the National Landscape for State Takeovers of School Districts

Little Rock teachers went on strike only once before, in 1987. That strike, which was the first in the history of Arkansas, lasted for six school days. This year, the strike is only planned for one day, although the union president warned that it could last longer.

There isn’t a state statute that prohibits teacher strikes, but Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore told the Arkansas Times earlier this week that the district hadn’t decided yet if teachers would face disciplinary action or termination for striking. The district pointed to language in the employee handbook that says “regular and reliable attendance is an essential job function,” and absences may only occur for “legitimate reasons such as sickness or important personal problems.”

Instruction will continue on Thursday for the district’s 24,000 students, most of whom are from low-income families. Classes will be conducted by substitutes, district administrators, and about 130 staff members from the Arkansas Department of Education.

Just seven states explicitly prohibit collective bargaining for teachers, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality—Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. In Arkansas, like in eight other states, collective bargaining is permissible, but districts do not have to engage.

Union supporters say that collective bargaining gives teachers a voice and leads to higher wages. Even so, one recent study found that passing a law requiring school districts to bargain with teachers’ unions was not associated with any dramatic change in teacher salary or education spending.

In Little Rock, teacher contracts will now be negotiated by a personnel policy committee, the Democrat-Gazette reports. The committee could include some Little Rock Education Association members, but any decisions made might be subject to approval by district administrators.

“As education professionals, our voice should be the strongest,” Gordon told the Democrat-Gazette. “We are the ones who are in those classrooms with those students, and we should be the ones whose voice counts when we’re talking about what we need to have the best learning conditions for those students.”

The work stoppage in Little Rock follows an 11-day teacher strike in Chicago, which ended on Oct. 31 with the union scoring a deal that included pay raises, money for class-size reductions, and promises of additional support staff positions. Still, the union didn’t get everything it wanted, and some teachers are unhappy with the deal.

Chicago teachers will vote Thursday and Friday on whether to ratify the tentative contract agreement.

Image: Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the Little Rock Education Association, speaks at a news conference outside Little Rock Central High School on Nov. 11, 2019. —Andrew Demillo/AP Photo

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.