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VOL. 35 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 4, 2011

TEA fights back against ‘attack’

By Bill Lewis

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When members of the Tennessee Education Association march on the state Capitol on Saturday, they say they will be defending collective bargaining rights that have resulted in small benefits like lunch breaks for teachers and time for planning lessons each day.

Their opponents in the tea party movement paint a much darker picture, saying collective bargaining for teachers adds millions to the costs of operating schools, blocks education reforms and involves the union in politics.

Since it became state law in 1978, the right of the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) to bargain with local school districts over salaries and working conditions has been unquestioned.

That changed this year when the Tennessee Legislature convened with Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. Many are conservative activists in tune with efforts to do away with collective bargaining by public employees in Tennessee and about nine other states, including Wisconsin.

“It has not been brought up since 1978. We don’t know why now,” says TEA President

Gera Summerford, a Sevier County math teacher.

The only answer, she says, is “it’s a political statement, a political attack on teachers.”

Critics of the union say it is too close to the Democratic Party, stands in the way of reforms such as the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law and ties the hands of local school boards and administrators trying to efficiently manage public schools. Collective bargaining, they argue, costs Tennessee’s school districts $16 million a year statewide by increasing teachers’ benefits.

TEA members plan to march from Bicentennial Mall to the Capitol to protest several bills that would end collective bargaining or weaken the union. Tea party activists, meanwhile, are hardening their own position with an e-mail targeting Republican legislators who might waver in their support for the legislation.

“You should know there are two RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) who are leaning toward killing (the anti-collective bargaining legislation), this coming Monday in the face of a relentless TEA union onslaught,” the tea party e-mail states.

In all, the tea party is targeting a dozen Republicans in the House and warning “their vote will be remembered in the next election.”

Not all teachers are united behind the TEA. A rival association, the Professional Educators of Tennessee, wants to end collective bargaining. PET also questions why the TEA, but no other teacher association, should have the legal right to appoint members to the pension board.

“We think collective bargaining is adversarial,” says J.C. Bowman, PET’s executive director. The association represents about 5,000 Tennessee teachers, including 250 to 300 in Metro Nashville Public Schools. Summerford says the TEA represents about 50,000 teachers statewide. There are about 75,000 teachers in Tennessee’s public schools.

Bowman also questions the tactics the TEA is employing to oppose the legislation.

“Being at the state Capitol and shouting is not the image that I want my children’s third-grade teacher to have,” he says.

Now that Tennessee is a “red state” with Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, Bowman believes the TEA is experiencing “a little political payback” after years of growing close to the Democratic Party.

Summerford, however, says complaints that the union supports only Democrats are unfounded. After all, she says, the TEA contributed to the campaigns of three Republicans who serve on the Senate’s Education Committee. When the bill to end collective bargaining came up, “they voted against us.”

Summerford says she can identify the origins of the fight over collective bargaining for teachers in Tennessee.

“It’s part of a nationwide movement,” she says. “It is a time when there’s a lot of frustration about schools reform and improving schools.”

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