••• Education •••

The legislature and collective bargaining bills – much ado about the unnecessary

This legislative session saw five bills float around under the newly refinished capitol dome that deal with collective bargaining between teachers and school boards. Here is a brief summary of what they would do.

  • SB 136/HB 2257, drafted and supported by the education establishment, it would, among other things, allow each side to choose up to five items for negotiation.
  • HB 2034 limits teacher contract negotiations to salaries and hours worked. Other items could be negotiated with consent from both sides.
  • SB 176 would allow only minimum salaries to be negotiated. It also allows a school board to issue a unilateral contract (allowing each teacher individually to accept or reject a contract offer) as soon as there is an impasse.
  • HB 2326 restricts union influence by allowing the union to bargain for members only. All other teachers would deal directly with the local school boards.

Here is a brief summary of what has transpired as of this writing.

  • HB 2257 was offered as amended language to HB 2034, but was defeated by a committee vote.
  • HB 2034 was passed out of committee but died in the full house.
  • SB 176 has had a hearing but no action was taken.
  • HB 2326 was voted out of committee and sent to the full house for action. It passed with an amendment that substituted its original language with the language from HB 2257.
  • SB 136 was amended multiple times which, among other things, allow each side to choose up to three items for negotiations. The full senate voted to substitute this language into HB2326 and will send the bill back to the house for reconsideration.

So much time, so much effort, so much debate, so much political posturing, so much confusion with so many bills, so much ado about something so unnecessary – teacher contracts.

Teachers don’t need contracts to teach. That’s a declaration that would make most in the education community gasp. It sounds like a statement from someone who had no experience in education, but I spent 20 years in the classroom and never felt the need for a contract. Not only are they unnecessary, but are actually detrimental to both teachers and students.

I will share an anecdote from my recent past as a case in point.

In the 2013-14 school year, my last year of teaching, there were contentious negotiations in my district between KNEA and the Topeka Public Schools (USD 501) school board. During the summer prior to the school year, the board granted huge raises to nearly every administrator in the district. Apparently, the board feared the administrative core was all headed to Johnson County unless given considerably higher compensation. Concurrently, the board offered the teachers a modest raise, which raised the ire among teachers and was overwhelmingly rejected by vote. A stalemate incurred, with both sides holding firm throughout the year. Since Kansas does not have binding arbitration, the board held the trump card; they had the right to extend what is called a unilateral contract, circumventing the union to make a take-it-or-leave-it proposition to the teachers individually. Sensing the rank-and-file members were getting antsy for a resolution (mainly because the teachers had gotten no raise money all year and the school year was nearly over), the union surveyed the members to find out where they stood with regards to being offered a unilateral contract.  As was shared with me by a union insider, much to the chagrin of the KNEA, a vast majority of the members said they were willing to take the unilateral contract. This triggered the following to happen: on the same day teachers were sent an email from the union telling us to hold firm and not give into the school board’s offer. Later that morning, after the union got the results of their survey, a follow-up email was sent to us telling all now to support the contract (which easily passed).

The point of this story is that the union got its members (and us non-members) nothing more than the school board offered in the first place. So all that time, all that work, all that negotiating, all that uncertainty, all that back-and-forth, all that ill-will – for what? Nothing. All the contract negotiations process got us was limbo for about nine months.

Sure, that’s just a single incident but it underscores several realities of the negotiated contract process, including: teaching under uncertain conditions, an adversarial employer/employee relationship and the willingness of teachers to work without a union negotiated contract. But those aren’t the only conditions that support the case for contracts going the way of the VCR and the rotary phone. Here are some others:

  •  A contract-free teaching environment would give teachers greater security and stability when the school-year started because there would be no pending employment issues (e.g., salaries and benefits). Teachers would be unencumbered from the uncertainty that often accompanies the negotiation process. To the benefit of the students, they would be free to give total commitment to teaching.
  • School boards would recognize that not all teachers are the same or do the same (e.g. subject matter or grade level taught, school placement, student performance) and make salary decisions based on those differences. Compensation would become more market based as the one-size-fits-all salary matrix system would dissolve.
  • A logical extension of market-based compensation would be the necessity of a completely different teacher evaluation process.
  •  The legislature could spend more time on real substantive education issues. One representative lamented that there have been bills on collective bargaining every year he has served on the committee. Doesn’t the legislature have more important things to do than debate bills that include superfluous issues such as dress codes for teachers?

So, with all these advantages in doing away with teacher contracts, why do we still have them? It’s because they’ve always had them. Change is difficult, especially when it involves something so entrenched. And eliminating a government entrenched activity is nearly impossible.

But the issue must be raised. It must start some time, and the time is now.

UPDATE:  All the bills referenced in this blog were killed prior to the legislature’s first adjournment on April 2, so unless resurrected in the “veto session” there will no changes in the collective bargaining law.  There is an old saying that the legislative process is like making sausage, but this is more analogous to fruitcake. Not only is better to avoid seeing it made, like collective bargaining for teachers, it is unnecessary to begin with.