NASHVILLE -- Tennessee school districts would no longer have to engage in negotiations with teachers' unions under a measure that is headed for a full Senate vote despite opposition from hundreds of state teachers.
However, "Working conditions for teachers are the learning conditions for students," according to Kathy Stapleton, a lead negotiator for the Marshall County Education Association who explained teacher contracts influence the number of children in a class.
The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Jack Johnson of Brentwood passed the Senate Education Committee 6-3 along party lines on Wednesday. The committee room was packed with educators, who spilled out into the hallways of the Legislative Plaza across the street from the Capitol and watched on flat screen televisions.
House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart is sponsoring the companion bill.
It's a "strong move toward real reform in Tennessee," Maggart said in a prepared statement after the vote. "As this legislation moves forward in the Senate, I will work tirelessly to make sure we follow suit here in the House."
Stapleton contends that the "reform" would revert to a law that was reformed 33 years ago that requires school boards to negotiate with education associations. Furthermore, the bill is pushed by the Tennessee School Board Association.
"Being able to negotiate with school boards gives teachers a voice in their working conditions," said Stapleton, an MCEA leader. "Parents and citizens should realize that the working conditions for teachers are the learning conditions for students. For example, would you want your child in a classroom with 35 other students or in a classroom with 24 students? That is an example of a working condition that would affect students. Teachers want to make sure there is a level playing field ... for our students.
"Negotiation is not all about salaries and benefits as many people may think," Stapleton continued in an e-mail. "When Marshall County teachers were surveyed, they were more concerned with being able to have some voice into their working conditions than with salary and benefits.
"If teachers are unable to negotiate, it will be a step backward. It's interesting to see who brought the bill and who is pushing it: the Tennessee School Board Association brought the bill," Stapleton said. "Teachers are not the ones begging to revert back to the ways things were before 1978."
Lawmakers advocating the bill claim work contract bargaining agencies impose a barrier between employees and employers.
Collective bargaining actually stifles teacher input, Johnson said. With education reforms proposed across the state and nation, he said, "it is more important than ever that all teachers have a seat at the table" and not have their voices filtered by a union.
Supporters of the legislation point out that none of Tennessee's neighboring states require collective bargaining with teachers, and that the teachers' negotiating rights are unique among public employees.
"No other entity in the state has mandatory collective bargaining except for teachers," Johnson said.
Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters testified before the Senate committee.
The legislation would create "chaos," Winters said. "People need a collective voice to express their concern."
Democratic Sen. Charlotte Burks of Monterey agreed.
"This bill is terribly bad timing," said Burks, who voted against the measure. "I think the teachers need to feel that they have every bit of support they can muster."
Winters said the legislation, as well as other education reform proposals this session, unfairly targets teachers. He said lawmakers should focus more on issues such as school safety and parental involvement.
"They're setting teachers up to fail," he said. "Let's at least pat people on the back a little bit and say job well done."