With nudging from Gov. Bill Haslam, House Republicans agreed Wednesday to end their attempt to strip away all the collective bargaining rights of public school teachers.
Instead, the Republicans offered a compromise in which the teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association, 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.
Also, the bill now makes it easier for teachers to decertify the TEA as their bargaining agent, requiring the votes of 30 percent rather than 50 percent of those covered by an agreement.
As Democrats complained, Republicans on the House Education Subcommittee approved the amended bill with little debate.
In her remarks to the subcommittee, Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, criticized the TEA and promised her bill would “remove politics from the discussion” of public education.
The Senate Education Committee has approved an outright repeal of the 1978 law that gave the teachers’ union the right to negotiate contracts with school districts. But a vote on the Senate floor has been delayed while lawmakers worked on this compromise with House Republicans, many of whom oppose repeal.
Haslam joined House Speaker Beth Harwell in embracing the compromise. Both were instrumental in its development, lawmakers said. The governor had drawn criticism for refusing to give his position on the bill publicly for weeks.
“It gives superintendents greater flexibility in making personnel decisions and supports my central focus of doing what’s best for children in Tennessee classrooms,” Haslam said in a statement after the subcommittee acted. “This legislation doesn’t change the fact that teachers will continue to have a voice on issues like pay and benefits.”
Harwell said that by barring the TEA from negotiating merit pay, the bill would let school boards raise the salaries of teachers for working in low-performing schools. Math and science teachers, who are in short supply, also could receive higher pay, she said.
“This is a good bill for teachers,” Harwell said. “This is an opportunity for teachers who are good to show that they are and to be rewarded for it. This is what we owe the taxpayers of this state. Every taxpayer, every mother, every father in this state deserves to know that who is in front of their child every day is a good teacher.”
Maggart blamed the TEA for Tennessee’s failing schools.
“For years, Tennessee has languished in the lower bracket of states in education,” she said. “We know we have too many failing schools across our state, and our citizens look to us to fix these problems. For too long under the old order, selfish political interests, the unions, have been allowed to dominate the discussion when it comes to setting the course of education in our state. Instead of discussing actual classroom policy and curriculum, our local school boards have constantly been dragged into debates that serve to build union influence and power, not the children we are all supposed to be concerned with. This isn’t a mere political failure. It is a moral failing.”
Outside the hearing room, TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters immediately demanded an apology.
“I was absolutely offended by Representative Maggart’s opening comments,” he said. “She went out of her way to be divisive and say that teachers and our organization had stood in the way of education reform.”
Winters said the TEA would have to review the amendment before deciding whether to oppose it.
“Obviously, we’re pleased that they’re not moving forward with a total repeal of the law,” he said. “That would be the Draconian thing to do. We feel pleased that at least there is some discussion of a middle ground. That discussion was within the Republican caucus. It was not a discussion directly with us. We’re not saying we support the legislation at this point.”
The legislation is part of the new Republican majority’s aggressive agenda to undermine the teachers’ union, critics contend.
Republican lawmakers also have filed bills to unseat TEA representatives from the teachers’ pension-governing board and to 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 a 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.
The bills have brought protests and counter-protests to the Capitol since the legislative session began in earnest in February. As many as 1,000 TEA supporters marched through Nashville one Saturday as Tea Party activists held their own demonstration in favor of the anti-union bills.
Tuesday, after a large pro-union demonstration at the Capitol, state troopers dragged seven young protesters out of a Senate committee meeting for disrupting the proceedings. They were charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
“This is not some part of a personal agenda or political vendetta,” said Maggart, chair of her party’s House political caucus. “This legislation allows each of us to reach higher for the benefit of all. This legislation promotes accountability in our education system because it encourages the highest performing teachers and rewards them for the amazing work they do.”
Democrats called on the subcommittee to wait a week to vote on the bill, since the amendment was made public only during Wednesday’s meeting. But Republicans said they were intent on moving forward.
“I’ve never seen anything more political than what has been going on in the first few weeks of this legislature, and I am sick and tired of it,” Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said.