Teaching Profession

Teachers Take Bids for Power To Legislatures

By Julie Blair — June 12, 2002 6 min read
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Arguing that they feel suffocated by increasing encroachments on their professional turf, teachers in several states turned to their legislatures this year in efforts to gain clout at the local bargaining table. And despite a mixed record of success, they are likely to keep pushing their agenda.

Lawmakers in four states considered proposals to broaden collective bargaining rights beyond the traditional issues of wages, hours, benefits, and working conditions, or aimed to better define them.

Plans to expand the decisionmaking voice of local teachers’ unions sparked sharp debate in California and started lively discussions in Connecticut before quietly dying. But union forces in Maryland and Tennessee fared better, winning new and bigger roles in setting policy in those states.

Observers predict similar legislative efforts next year. While the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers do not have national strategies to expand state collective bargaining laws, they do back such efforts financially, officials for the two Washington-based unions said.

The spate of legislative efforts represents “an outcry from teachers,” said Wellford W. Wilms, the director of the Educational Leadership Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It is really a wake-up call to school boards and superintendents that they’ve got a serious problem.”

People on both sides of the issue are digging in.

Proponents of increased rights for teachers’ unions say they want to ensure that educators have the influential role in academic and policy matters that their pivotal jobs demand. While teachers generally sit on school committees and advise school boards, they contend they aren’t taken seriously by decisionmakers.

“When you are the professional practitioner and you have no formal role in the selection of your tools, there is something inherently wrong,” said Wayne Johnson, the president of the 300,000-member California Teachers Association, which backed the Golden State’s legislation.

Critics say teachers’ unions shouldn’t be allowed to expand their scope. They argue that unions, unlike school boards, are not accountable to the public and could hold decisions on curriculum or discipline procedures hostage while they negotiate pay raises. They add that such decisionmaking would slow already cumbersome processes, such as textbook selection, and undermine efforts to improve schools.

“Collective bargaining was not intended to make education policy,” said Scott P. Plotkin, the executive director of the California School Boards Association. It is rare that a school board is going to turn down a recommendation by a teacher committee,” he added.

Teacher Power

Such concerns derailed recent efforts to legislate changes sought by teachers’ unions in California and Connecticut.

The biggest fight came to a head late last month in California, where the CTA faced off against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, the business community, and groups representing administrators and school board members.

A controversial bill in the Assembly, the legislature’s lower house, had initially granted teachers’ unions the opportunity to bargain over textbooks and curricular standards, among other issues. (“Calif. Bill Would Allow Unions More Say on Academics,” March 6, 2002.)

Then, in an attempt to make the measure more palatable to its opponents, it was amended to provide for the creation of collaborative decisionmaking bodies outside official labor negotiations. Both versions of the legislation would have prohibited unions from using academic issues as leverage on more traditional agenda items, such as pay.

The legislation was quietly withdrawn on May 31, however, when the author, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a Democrat and former teacher and school board member in Los Angeles, determined that it lacked the support to pass."People who have supported us for years basically stabbed us in the back,” Mr. Johnson of the CTA charged.

“School board members are probably the least qualified people in the state to make curriculum and textbook decisions,” he added.

His union, an affiliate of the NEA, will consider working to place the issue on the state ballot in March 2004, Mr. Johnson said.

In Connecticut, a bill that would have required local districts and teachers’ unions to bargain over teacher-evaluation procedures easily passed in committees in both legislative chambers, said Cliff Silvers, the director of affiliate services for the 35,000-member Connecticut Education Association, an NEA affiliate. But it failed to be scheduled for floor debate.

Win in Maryland

Further South, though, the Maryland State Teachers Association celebrated a big win.

A law passed in April will provide, for the first time, an opportunity for local teachers’ unions and school districts to bargain on discipline policies and teacher professional- development programs, among other matters. Both parties must agree to bring such issues to the bargaining table before doing so, a clause that made the measure acceptable to many legislators.

“We got terrific support in the House of Delegates and the Senate,” said Patricia A. Foerster, the president of the 56,000-member state affiliate of the NEA affiliate. She also credited Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, and advocacy groups who backed the legislation for its passage.

Legislators in Tennessee were successful in tweaking a law already on the books, said Mitchell G. Johnson, the assistant executive director of the 50,000-member Tennessee Education Association, also an NEA affiliate.

Before the change was passed, teachers’ unions could bargain only on pay, hours, and physical working conditions. Now, that definition has been broadened to include some academic issues surrounding performance and accountability.

“It is a huge success on our part because there was an attempt to try to wipe out bargaining in Tennessee over the last couple of years,” Mr. Johnson said.

Such decisions make critics groan.

Maryland State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick wants teachers’ voices heard, but came out against the measure because bargaining on academic issues will complicate the process, said Linda Bazerjian, a spokeswoman for the state department of education.

Teachers’ opinions are important, Ms. Bazerjian said, but added that “they’re involved in these issues throughout the process.”

Ms. Foerster of the MSTA argued, though, that the new approach would actually improve labor-management relations.

“The old style is that everybody goes in with demands, ... and you become adversaries,” she said. The new system “allows you to work from common interests. It is a much different mind-set.”

California, Connecticut, Maryland, and Tennessee won’t be the only one states to debate such issues, said Lynn Ohman, the director of collective bargaining and member advocacy for the NEA. New Jersey and Pennsylvania also have an interest in expanding collective bargaining laws.

Teacher spokesmen say such efforts illustrate the growing frustration among teachers, who feel they’ve been left out of decisions critical to their careers, the academic lives of students, and the destinies of their schools, especially with the advent of the standards and accountability movement.

“They’re attempting to get control over their professional lives,” Ms. Ohman said of classroom educators. “It is a natural extension of the accountability laws. If you’re going to make them accountable, educators would like to have some say in classroom policies.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Teachers Take Bids for Power To Legislatures

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