The Tennessee Education Association is on the defensive in the state legislature with some leaders of the new Republican majority pushing an aggressive agenda to undermine the teachers’ union.
Republican lawmakers have filed bills to strip the TEA of its collective bargaining powers, unseat TEA representatives from the teachers’ pension-governing board, and end automatic paycheck withdrawals for membership dues for public employee unions. Another bill would ban labor organizations, including the TEA, from giving to political campaigns.
The bills’ sponsors describe their goals as cost-cutting and altruistic reform of government and politics. But TEA officials contend the legislation is payback for the union’s contributions to Democrats in November’s elections, when Republicans took firm control of the legislature.
“Some of the Republicans are just acting like schoolyard bullies,” said Jerry Winters, the TEA’s lobbyist in Nashville. “They’re trying to make us pay a price for not supporting some of their candidates last fall. Some of the proposals that have been put forth, they don’t have anything to do with education reform. They are just attempts to poke TEA in the eye and to try to silence the collective voice of teachers.
“We did give to a number of Republicans last time, but obviously, it wasn’t enough to satisfy some of their leadership. I think we’ve got more Republican friends than they think. If they viewed that election last year as a mandate to take it out on our children’s teachers, I think they’re wrong. We’ll see as these bills come up, but I think they’ve misjudged the situation.”
Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory, the chairman of the House Democratic political caucus, points out that some of the bills also undercut other unions, including the Tennessee State Employees Association.
“The Republicans have declared war on middle-class people, people who get up and go to work every day,” Turner said. “They’re talking about taking rights away from state workers and teachers. It’s an all-out war on the middle class.”
Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, said his bill to end automatic paycheck withdrawals is intended only to save cities and counties the administrative costs. Regarding another of his bills, he said he wants to ban unions’ political contributions because state law already prohibits campaign giving by corporations.
“If the goal is to keep outside money out of politics, then it should apply to unions as well,” Casada said. “However we decide to do it, we should treat corporations and unions the same.”
Rep. Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, Turner’s Republican counterpart in the House, said her bill to repeal the state’s collective bargaining law wouldn’t hurt teacher salaries and would free school boards to spend more time improving classrooms. Teachers in most of the state’s school districts engage in collective bargaining through the TEA to negotiate contracts. But in the 45 districts that don’t, salaries aren’t significantly lower. The TEA represents 55,000 teachers and other educators.
“You’re going to see some of us file some legislation that probably the old guard’s not going to like,” Maggart told the Tennessee Report website. “I think that it’s an opportunity to try to look at things in a different light and try to do what’s best for kids and maybe not focus so much on the interest of the adults.”
In state legislatures across the country, newly empowered Republicans are backing similar measures against teachers’ organizations, the party’s traditional nemesis in election campaigns. After its successes in last year’s elections, the GOP now controls more state legislative seats than it has in more than 80 years, and it has the majority in both lawmaking chambers in 25 states including Tennessee, according to Education Week.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam also is preparing to advocate changes that could curtail the power of the TEA. He wants to reduce job protections for teachers and to expand charter schools, which typically are non-union workplaces.
TEA officials met with the governor last week to discuss his proposals. Haslam offered only vague generalities about his plans but did express an openness to hear the union’s own ideas at some point, Winters said. Haslam, who took office on Jan. 15, has yet to name an education commissioner.
Last year, the TEA was forced to concede ground on the state’s tenure law under pressure from then-Gov. Phil Bredesen and both Republicans and Democrats in the legislature. That change in the law, which tied teacher tenure to student test scores for the first time in this state, helped Tennessee win $500 million in President Obama’s Race to the Top competition for innovations in education.
Turner argues it’s a betrayal of the teachers’ union to go back on that deal only a year later.
“They gave up a lot of protections because they thought it was the best thing for Tennessee, and now we’re going to turn around and try to take more protection away from them? Education is going the right way here in Tennessee. We’ve had a bipartisan effort, Republicans and Democrats holding hands going the right way. Now they’re going to draw a wedge right down the line and split it up?
“Democrats are not going along with it. It’ll be a nasty, drawn-out fight,” Turner said, although he concedes that with its large legislative majority, the GOP “can sell the dome off the Capitol.”