The War on Teachers

How did Tennessee's educators become the new public enemy?

SB 113: As introduced, abolishes teachers unions' ability to negotiate terms and conditions of professional service with local boards of education.

SB 139: As introduced, creates Class C misdemeanor for labor organizations to contribute to candidates.

HB 367: As introduced, allows the board of education to grant teachers tenure at any time between their third and tenth years of service; eliminates judicial review of decision to suspend or dismiss a teacher for incompetence, inefficiency, neglect of duty, unprofessional conduct or insubordination.

SB 136: As introduced, prohibits public employees from having a payroll deduction to a political action committee or for dues for membership organizations that use funds for political activities.

SB 102: As introduced, changes the method of selection of trustees of TCRS representing teachers and retired teachers from election by the representative assemblies of the Tennessee Education Association and the Tennessee Retired Teachers Association respectively to appointment by the speakers of the Senate and the House.

Bill Bell was listening to a local call-in radio show on his way to work the other week, and the subject was one he tends to take personally: teachers. Bell, a music teacher at Halls High School, has worked in public education for 41 years. And he didn't like what he was hearing. Reacting both to the widely publicized labor unrest in Wisconsin and to a series of bills proposed here in Tennessee, callers were vilifying teachers as lazy, overpaid, obstructionists, union stooges protecting their own jobs and benefits at the expense of both students and taxpayers.

"If people want to call in and fuss about people in Wisconsin, okay," Bell says. "But I didn't hear people calling in to say, ‘Our teachers here aren't like those teachers in Wisconsin.' I heard ‘teachers.'"

It is true that teachers in Tennessee are not like teachers in Wisconsin, at least not when it comes to labor issues. Tennessee is a "right to work" state, where nobody can be compelled to pay union dues if they don't want to. Wisconsin teachers don't have that option. Wisconsin teachers are also paid a bit more than Tennessee teachers—according to the National Education Association, classroom teachers in Wisconsin had an average salary of $52,644 in 2009, compared to $46,290 in Tennessee. And Wisconsin teachers contribute less toward their health care and retirement funds than Tennessee teachers do.

One thing they have in common, at least for now, is collective bargaining. Teachers' associations negotiate contracts with local school boards, on behalf of all certified employees. And that raises the other thing they have in common these days, the thing that distresses Bell: Teachers in both places, like their peers in New Jersey and a growing number of other states, are suddenly on the front lines of a political battle. Union rights, retirement benefits, tenure, performance evaluation, all are being poked, prodded, scrutinized, and even targeted for abolishment by Republican governors and lawmakers.

And it has all left teachers feeling a little shaken. "It has already affected a lot of teachers," says Jessica Holman, president of the Knox County Education Association, which represents local teachers and administrators. "They're intensely worried about where their profession is going, they're concerned about the lack of support for them and their jobs, and they're highly offended at the picture that's being painted of them in the media."

Most galling, Holman says, is that all of this comes just a year after the state's teachers worked closely with Gov. Phil Bredesen and the Legislature on the ground-breaking First to the Top act, which led to the state being awarded $500 million for school reform by the Obama administration. Among the things the Tennessee Education Association agreed to were yearly performance evaluations, including the use of student-achievement data.

"But this year, the theme is certainly not collaboration," Holman says. "The theme seems to be, let's limit the voice of the TEA and take away some of their power."

The state is in the early stages of Bredesen's ambitious program, which Gov. Bill Haslam has promised to continue. To make it work, Holman says, will require the continued dedication of Tennessee's best teachers. She doesn't think the tone and content of the raft of new legislation will do much to encourage that.

"There's a lot of people locally who I've spoken to in the last couple weeks—myself included," Holman says, "who are considering an alternative career path if these things happen."

Last March, in announcing the Race to the Top award, Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised Tennessee's "statewide buy-in" for the effort. So why, a year later, are teachers and legislators suddenly so much at odds? The answer has to do with political shifts far from Knox County, and in some cases far from Tennessee. But they threaten long-standing relationships here between the people in the classroom and those who supervise, regulate, and reward them.

A Collective Voice

The issue of greatest concern to both TEA and KCEA is collective bargaining. Tennessee teachers have had the right to representative negotiations only since 1978, when the Legislature passed the Education Professional Negotiations Act. It was part of a nationwide move toward collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees, which had begun—ironically enough—in Wisconsin, in 1959. Under the Tennessee law, if 30 percent of a school system's teachers call for a vote on bargaining, the system has to hold an election. If a majority of teachers then vote for it, the local teachers' association is granted bargaining power for contracts that cover all teachers (even those who do not join the association).

A bill introduced by state Sen. Jack Johnson, a Republican from Franklin, would scrap the 1978 law entirely. That would abolish collective bargaining in the 91 school systems that currently have it. (Another 45 do not.) Johnson has said collective bargaining actually shuts some teachers out of decisions about education and their own careers, because everything is funneled through the local associations.

Besides salary and benefit negotiations, Holman says collective agreements provide due process protections for teachers in disciplinary matters. These are popularly portrayed as shielding "bad teachers," but Holman says that is far from the intent. Historically, teachers were a particularly vulnerable group, working largely in isolation from one another and subject to the whims of administrators, superintendents, and school board members. Holman notes that even teachers whose students perform well on tests or who are respected by parents and peers can have personality conflicts with their bosses.

"Without any sort of rules, or checks and balances, or ‘These are the steps in that process,'" Holman says, "that principal can walk down the hall to the teacher's room and say, ‘I'm sorry, pack up your books, you're done.'"

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has argued that repealing collective bargaining is essential to balancing the state's budget, on the grounds that teachers there have extracted generous salary and benefit packages that the state can no longer afford. But that is a hard case to make in Tennessee—none of the surrounding states have collective bargaining rights for teachers, but almost all of them have higher average teacher salaries, according to the NEA. (At more than $54,000, Georgia has a higher average than Wisconsin.)

So if the push against bargaining isn't driven by the budget, what is it driven by? State Sen. Jamie Woodson of Knoxville, who serves on the Senate's Education Committee, says she shares Johnson's concerns about negotiated contracts stifling teacher input. Like the other five Republicans on the committee, she voted in favor of the bill last month. (The three Democrats voted no.) "I see the bill as really providing a voice to all teachers, rather than a single organization," Woodson says. Other supporters of the bill have depicted TEA and its local affiliates as obstacles to school reform.

One of the major backers of the bill is the Tennessee School Boards Association, which has had repeal of collective bargaining on its legislative agenda for decades. Lee Harrell, the TSBA's director of government and labor relations, says negotiated contracts tend to place a premium on seniority, rewarding longevity rather than effectiveness and making it harder to deal with problematic teachers.

"We're certainly not trying to attack teachers," Harrell says. "This is an effort to protect effective teachers."

Jerry Winters, the TEA's director of government relations, doesn't buy any of that. He sees the bill as largely a piece of political payback by some newly empowered Republicans taking aim at an organization that often supports Democrats. Winters is careful to say that, "We've got some very good supporters who are Republican legislators." But he also says that last fall, state Rep. Glen Casada, a former House Republican Caucus chairman, called him to complain that TEA wasn't donating enough money to Republican candidates. "He basically tried to shake down the TEA," Winters says. Casada has acknowledged the conversation, but says it has nothing to do with any pending legislation.

Winters says the TEA does support more Democrats than Republicans, as the National Education Association does at the federal level, but that's for good reasons: "We support candidates who support public education. If there are more Democrats who are endorsed by TEA, it's because they have a better track record on our issues."

In other words, given the conservative Republican enthusiasm for things ranging from school vouchers to teaching Biblical creationism in science classes, it is hardly surprising that they are not the preferred party of public school teachers' associations.

Winters also scoffs at the idea that TEA has been obstructionist, citing its cooperation with Bredesen's reforms. He argues that a strong teachers' association is a necessary partner in those efforts. "If you really want to have real education reform, it makes no sense at all not to talk to the practitioners," Winters says.

Of course, the anti-collective bargaining push here also has a broader national context. With private-sector union membership now at a paltry 6.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, public employee groups are the last real bastion of organized labor. Nationwide, 36.2 percent of public workers are unionized. So for ideological union foes like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the right-wing Club for Growth, and the billionaire Koch brothers responsible for underwriting many Tea Party activities, public workers are a logical target. All have supported Walker in Wisconsin.

Bill Bell, the Halls music teacher, says that if you want to go after organized labor in Tennessee, teachers are the biggest, easiest target. "If you want to start breaking unions, teachers are a good place to start," says Bell, who is also the local representative for TEA's political action wing. "They're visible, they're vulnerable."

But there are some political differences between Tennessee and Wisconsin. Unlike Walker, Haslam has not taken a stand on the collective bargaining issue, and has focused instead on changing teacher tenure laws (see sidebar) and allowing more charter schools. Of course, nobody particularly expects Haslam to veto the bill if it's presented to him. That's why for now TEA is trying to stop it from getting to his desk, tallying supporters in the House and urging teachers and others to come to Nashville this Saturday for a rally.

Local Harmony in Jeopardy

Collective bargaining is hardly the only issue of concern to TEA. There are also proposed bills to disallow automatic paycheck deduction of union dues, to limit TEA's influence in naming members to the state's pension management board, to extend the tenure period from three to five or even 10 years, and even to make it a crime for a labor organization to make political donations.

"I could see how if I was a teacher, I would feel I was under attack."

So says state Rep. Bill Dunn, the conservative Knoxville Republican, who is himself the author of one of those tenure measures. Dunn is a dedicated home-schooler and frequent critic of public education, whose current bills also include one calling for abstinence-based sex education and another that encourages the teaching of "scientific controversies" on subjects including evolution and global warming. But even he does not want to be seen as anti-teacher. "I feel for them," he says of educators. "I'm going out of my way to be kind and considerate of our teachers."

Woodson, who has enjoyed the active support of the KCEA, is similarly conciliatory. "I've worked very hard to have an open and collaborative relationship with teachers in our county," she says.

In fact, all sides in Knox County attest to good relations. At the school system level, there is a history of more cooperation than confrontation between the association and the superintendent and school board. "The board believes that our interests and the teachers' interests are in alignment," says school board Chairwoman Indya Kincannon. "We have negotiations, but they're not acrimonious or hostile."

That's why the Knox County school board itself is not pushing to overturn collective bargaining. Neither is Superintendent Jim McIntyre, who said in a prepared statement, "While the issue of collective bargaining is not a part of our legislative agenda, we do appreciate and value our positive relationship with the Knox County Education Association. We are fortunate in the Knox County Schools to have outstanding teachers who are deeply committed to providing a high-quality education to all of our students."

One recent exception to this smooth relationship came last year, when McIntyre and the board asked KCEA to consider a salary freeze to prevent layoffs in a tight budget. KCEA members rejected the proposal. Bell says that was mostly the fault of the relatively new superintendent, whom he says many teachers see as unnecessarily adversarial. "Jim McIntyre has failed to establish a working relationship with most teachers," Bell says. "They don't trust him."

But McIntyre has embraced efforts like the Teacher Advancement Program, which provides extra compensation to some "master teachers" to help mentor their colleagues. That couldn't have happened without KCEA, Holman says. She says the association is a willing partner in discussions about performance-based pay and the use of student-achievement data to help guide classroom teaching.

KCEA has also worked closely with legislators of both parties—last year, Holman says, it endorsed "a record number of Republicans." That's why she feels something close to betrayed by the legislative agenda. "We've endorsed them, we've stood behind these people, and now they get up in Nashville at the start of this session and it's, ‘Here's the knife in your back.'"

Holman says that while she was sitting in at an Education Committee hearing last week, she got so dispirited that she started wondering what other kinds of jobs she could do. "I thought, ‘A nurse!' Or ‘A hairdresser!'" she says, with a rueful laugh. But instead, she says she intends to return to the state capital every week for the remainder of the session.

Winters will be there too, obviously, lobbying for the TEA. But he says he wishes there were more bills he could lobby for, instead of having to try to fend off what feels like a series of assaults, no matter their intent. "All they're doing is talking about taking things away from teachers," he says. "Teachers are feeling pretty demoralized right now. They feel beaten down."