Teaching Profession

Vote on Ohio Collective-Bargaining Law Nears

By Sean Cavanagh — November 01, 2011 7 min read
Rodney Wagoner, left and his wife, Wridder Wagoner, demonstrate against a new Ohio law restricting the bargaining rights of some public employees, including teachers, at an appearance by Gov. John Kasich, who supports the measure. The couple works for the Service Employees International Union. The law has drawn opposition from organized labor across the state, including teachers' unions, and has sparked furious door-to-door and online campaigning.

The 2012 presidential election is a year away, but perennial battleground Ohio is hosting an impassioned political campaign this fall with national overtones, centered in a debate over the collective bargaining powers of teachers and other public employees.

Voters will go to the polls next week to decide whether to support or repeal a new, Republican-backed law that would greatly curtail the ability of teachers to negotiate over working conditions, wages, and benefits.

Teachers’ unions and other critics of the law have organized a broad effort to undo the measure, known on the ballot as Issue 2, and are attempting to reach voters through door-to-door campaigning, televised and Web-based advertisements and messages, and other means. Opponents of repeal, who include Republican Gov. John Kasich and many business leaders, are fighting back with outreach efforts of their own, which attempt to dispel what they say are myths about the law.

In an off-year election, this ballot item has drawn nationwide interest, in part because of the prevailing political climate and its impact on education issues around the country. Republican governors and lawmakers in many states have taken bold and controversial steps to challenge the influence of teachers’ unions on collective bargaining and a host of other fronts, including how educators are paid and evaluated, and the conditions under which they are hired, fired, and can secure tenure. (“State Legislatures Notch Major K-12 Policy Changes,” May 25, 2011.)

The Ohio fight emerges just months after a similar high-profile battle played out in Wisconsin, provoked by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP legislators’ passage of a law that restricts teachers’ and other workers’ collective-bargaining powers. The Wisconsin fracas inspired a series of recall elections for state legislative seats this summer, which resulted in Democrats making gains, but not enough to wrest control of the Republican-held state Senate. (“Union Right Issue Driving Wis. Recall Elections,” Aug. 10, 2011.)

On the Ballot

While 2011 is an off-year election, a smattering of state-level races and ballot measures are on tap. Among the highlights to watch for Nov. 8, along with the results of some already-decided races:

BALLOT MEASURES

Ohio
Voters will decide whether to approve or reject a new law that reduces teachers’ and other public employees’ collective bargaining power.

Louisiana
Voters on Oct. 22 approved dedicating future tobacco-settlement revenue to scholarships for students attending state colleges.

Colorado
Proposition 103 would raise sales and income taxes temporarily to support public education. The vote is Nov. 1.

STATE LEGISLATURES

Four states are holding regular legislative elections: Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia. (Louisiana had a primary Oct. 22 and will have a run off Nov. 19.) A number of other states are holding special elections.

GOVERNORS’ RACES

Kentucky

Steve Beshear (D) Donald Williams (R)

Mississippi

Johnny DuPree (D) Phil Bryant (R)

Louisiana (decided Oct. 22)

WINNER
Bobby Jindal (R) Tara Hollis (D)*

West Virginia (decided Oct. 4)

WINNER
Earl Ray Tomblin (D) Bill Maloney (R)

*Gov. Jindal won an open primary that pitted Republicans and Democrats against each other. Hollis finished second.

SOURCE: National Governors Association; National Conference of State Legislatures

The intense interest in the Ohio measure aligns with the state’s status as a critical electoral prize in the presidential election, and the resultant curiosity about whether the ballot outcome will offer signals about the political fortunes of either party, said Dan Birdsong, a political science lecturer at the University of Dayton. But the Ohio battle also carries implications for other states where governors and lawmakers may be curious to see whether efforts to curb collective bargaining powers bring political consequences, he said.

If the law is repealed, it could be seen as a demonstration of “pushback against government overreach, overreaching on collective bargaining,” Mr. Birdsong said. But if it’s upheld, it could be seen as reflecting a shift in the public’s thinking about the “role of government employees in our society.”

Major Shift

By one recent measure, opponents of the law seem to have swayed public opinion to their side. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week shows state residents favoring repeal 57 percent to 32 percent, with 11 percent undecided, and a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

The Ohio law, originally known as Senate Bill 5, was strongly backed by Republican state lawmakers and Gov. Kasich, who signed it in March, but it was opposed by Democrats. Supporters argued that previous Ohio laws gave unions far too much power in contract negotiations, compelling public employers, including school districts, to make concessions that cost taxpayers too much money—and, in the case of schools, that undermine school improvement.

Senate Bill 5 imposes broad restrictions on public workers’ bargaining powers. In school districts, it forbids bargaining over class sizes, school assignments, and provisions that restrict principals from assigning workloads and job responsibilities. The law also gives school boards broad powers to put in place their final offer in negotiations with unions if the two sides cannot reach agreement, according to both teachers’ union and school board representatives.

In addition, the measure also forbids districts from giving preference in layoff decisions to teachers with more seniority—a provision similar to those adopted in a number of other states, such as Florida and Idaho. The law requires that teachers be paid on the basis of performance, rather than under a traditional set salary schedule, though it leaves unclear how performance would be judged. The bill also mandates minimum health-care and pension contributions for school employees.

The Ohio administrative services department, a part of Mr. Kasich’s administration, has estimated that the law would save local governments, including school districts, more than $1 billion per year by reducing health-care costs and doing away with automatic salary increases.

David Varda, the executive director of the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, agreed that the law would save districts money, though it’s difficult to predict how much. Saving money on teachers’ salaries, for instance, would depend on the structure of the performance-pay model that replaces the existing system. And while districts would save on health-care costs, those savings are based “on a number that’s going up 20 percent a year,” Mr. Varda said.

Repealing the law would raise a number of questions for school districts, Mr. Varda noted. Lawmakers, as part of their approval of a state budget this year, created a separate merit-pay system for teachers, so districts presumably would have to interpret that law and follow it, he said. Mr. Varda said his group has not taken an official position on whether to support or oppose repeal, because its membership is split on the issue.

Two of the leading voices on opposite sides of Issue 2 are We Are Ohio, which has worked closely with the state’s teachers’ unions and favors repeal, and Building a Better Ohio, which backs the new law.

We Are Ohio helped led the effort to collect 1.3 million signatures in securing the ballot question. It enlisted 10,000 volunteers during that process and has even more supporters working to repeal the law now, said spokeswoman Melissa Fakezas.

Selling Merit Pay

Building a Better Ohio argues that the law will bring public employees’ benefits more in line with the private sector’s, and make the state more attractive to businesses. Connie Wehrkamp, who is taking leave from the governor’s staff to work for the group, said there is more support for the law than recent polls suggest.

“When we can get to voters and tell them what the issues are,” Ms. Wehrkamp said, “we win.”

A recent campaign disclosure shows that We Are Ohio’s financial backers include the Ohio Education Association, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, and numerous other labor groups. Building a Better Ohio released a list of donors last week that included the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and many businesses from across the state.

National Limelight

Issue 2’s resonance beyond Ohio was evident this week, when it turned up in the Republican presidential campaign. GOP candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney last week said he supported the Ohio law, only to draw criticism from two of his opponents competing for the Republican nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor, both of whom accused Mr. Romney of wavering on the issue.

While the Ohio measure affects many classes of public employees, both supporters and opponents of the law have made education issues a part of their fight. Building a Better Ohio has released a television advertisement touting the law’s support for teacher merit pay.

“Good teachers will finally be rewarded for the job they do and the results that they achieve in the classroom,” said Kyle Farmer, an Ohio teacher, in the on-air spot. “Not all teachers want this change. But isn’t it about time the educators who teach our children get paid to deliver?”

Teachers Weigh In

We Are Ohio, meanwhile, has posted a number of online videos from teachers who say that the law will result in larger class sizes and diminished worker rights.

It has also enlisted educators such as Phil Hayes, a high school teacher from the 51,000-student Columbus city school district. Mr. Hayes traveled to the state capitol this year to oppose the law. Now he works the phones and doorsteps after school hours, weekdays, and weekends, in support of a repeal.

Mr. Hayes, 36, said far too many of the law’s provisions, such as those establishing merit pay, are vaguely defined. Others, such as its potential impact on class sizes, deeply trouble him.

Small class sizes “give me the ability to give students the individual attention they need,” he said. “For me, teaching is not what I do, it’s who I am. My teaching conditions are my students’ learning conditions.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Vote Looms on Ohio Union-Rights Law

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