The debate over repealing collective bargaining for public school teachers was the most contentious of this year’s state legislative session, with opponents rallying at the Capitol in raucous demonstrations like those that put the national spotlight on Wisconsin.
It took two tie-breaking votes from House Speaker Beth Harwell before Tennessee Republicans succeeded in stripping the teachers’ union of most of its power. The Tennessee Education Association urged Gov. Bill Haslam to veto the bill. Even though he said it wasn’t one of his priorities for education reform, Haslam signed the bill into law.
The legislature repealed the collective bargaining law enacted in 1978. That gave teachers the right to form unions and negotiate contracts with school boards. The new law calls for school boards to hold so-called collaborations with teachers on pay and benefits. But no agreements are required, and school boards can impose whatever terms they wish on teachers.
Republicans also passed bills to unseat TEA representatives from the teachers’ pension-governing board and to give school boards the right to end automatic paycheck withdrawals for membership dues — a potentially crippling blow to the union.
Republicans hailed it as a historic opportunity for education reform, but Democrats accused the state GOP of demonizing public school teachers.
“We have dealt with a lot of bad bills regarding teachers this session, but this may be the worst,” Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said after the Senate voted 18-14 to repeal collective bargaining by teachers. “Teachers were deliberately ignored and deliberately targeted by the sponsors and supporters of this legislation.”
But Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said, “Union contracts have hamstrung our local school boards for too long. More than a year ago, our state raced to the top and planted our flag as a beacon for education reform in the nation, but our journey is not over.”
One of the bill’s sponsors — Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Brentwood — said: “In 1978 the General Assembly gave a monopoly to one government union and allowed that union to strangle the hope of education reform in this state. This bill rectifies that mistake and gives power back to locally elected school boards and teachers. The passage of this measure is necessary if we mean to continue on the path of education reform we have embarked upon.”
“We have a historic opportunity to make this session of the General Assembly a landmark for the cause of reform,” Johnson said. “This bill creates a collaborative environment between teachers and their local board, which will ultimately result in putting a quality teacher in every classroom.”
Republicans denied they were trying to bust the teachers’ union to dry up a source of campaign cash for Democrats. That was the contention of the Tennessee Education Association, a traditionally ally of Democrats in the legislature.
“All of these bills are about one thing: political payback,” said Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere. “None of this legislation is going to raise a single test score or improve a single child’s education. A teacher’s work environment is a child’s learning environment, and both get worse every time one of these bills passes.”
Under pressure from teachers back home, even some Republicans agreed with Democrats. More moderate Republicans in the House forced the legislature to back away from the original legislation, which took an even harder line against the teachers’ union.
“I can tell you, teachers are scared,” Rep. David Shephard, R-Dickson, said during the House floor debate. “They’re confused and they’re scared, and they’re hurt.”
Haslam and Harwell tried to forge a compromise in which the TEA could continue to negotiate with school boards over base pay and benefits, but not certain incentive compensation plans or personnel decisions such as school assignments, transfers and layoffs. But that was unacceptable to Senate Republicans.
The Tea Party sent an “emergency alert” urging its supporters to contact lawmakers who were waffling on the legislation. “We need to ‘wear them out’ now!” the alert said. At the top of the list was Harwell, even though she twice saved the bill from defeat by casting the tie-breaking vote in committee meetings.
Both houses eventually agreed on the “collaborative conferencing” approach, which at least gives the appearance that school boards are taking the wishes of teachers into account. The House voted 59-39 for the final bill.
Since the session ended, the TEA has suffered membership losses — perhaps as much as 10 percent, according to union lobbyist Jerry Winters. With the union so weakened by the legislature, many teachers no longer see belonging to the TEA as important.
“The attack the legislature launched on teachers didn’t make it easy for us,” Winters said.
Five Top stories in 2011
Tort reform: In Gov. Bill Haslam’s major legislative achievement of the year, lawmakers capped jury awards and imposed other new restrictions on lawsuits for injuries and deaths caused by negligence or wrongful actions.
Photo ID: The legislature’s new Republican majority adopted a law requiring photo ID for voters beginning in next year’s elections, claiming it’s needed to stop voter fraud. But Democrats contended it was part of a national GOP campaign to suppress the votes of the poor and elderly.
Guns and Bars 2: State Rep. Curry Todd, champion of the state’s guns-in-bars law, was charged with driving drunk with a loaded handgun in a holster in his SUV. Police say Todd was swerving at 60 mph toward Hillsboro Village when he was stopped. He apologized and resigned his position as chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee.
Harwell: Despite opposition from the Tea Party and conservative critics who said she was too moderate, Rep. Beth Harwell became the first woman elected speaker of the state House. “It’s an exciting opportunity,” the typically understated Harwell said of her new role as feminist champion. “My 16-year-old daughter for the first time told me I was cool. So there you go.”
Discrimination: The legislature invalidated Nashville’s ordinance barring gay discrimination by companies doing business with Metro. Republicans maintained the ordinance would cause confusion with businesses and hurt the economy. Gay rights activists then joined Metro Council members in suing the legislature to overturn the state law. The case is pending.