Tennessee Proposes to Neuter Teachers Unions

Kyle Olson

2/4/2011 12:01:00 AM - Kyle Olson

It looks like the leaders of the Tennessee Education Association are in for some sleepless nights.

But education reformers, taxpayers, parents and many dedicated teachers are celebrating the news that two Tennessee lawmakers have filed the initial paperwork to introduce a bill that would effectively eliminate teacher unions in the Volunteer State.

Even though Tennessee is a "right to work" state, state law gives public school teachers the right to collectively bargain with their local school board over issues such as working conditions, salaries and fringe benefits. No other public sector employees (such as firemen or police officers) have that privilege.

House Bill 130, sponsored by Rep. Debra Maggart, a Republican who represents Hendersonville, Gallatin and portions of Goodlettsville, and Rep. Glen Casada, Republican from College Grove, would prohibit "any local board of education from negotiating with a professional employees' organization or teachers' union concerning the terms or conditions of professional service on or after the effective date of this bill."

In plain English, the bill would put the taxpayers back in charge of public education. Cash-strapped local school boards would be able to make spending decisions based on what's best for children, instead of what will keep adult employees happy.

And keeping the teacher unions happy has proven to be an expensive enterprise. Labor costs typically consume 80 percent to 85 percent of a school's total budget. A standard teacher contract includes lavish insurance and pension benefits, automatic annual pay raises for teachers (regardless of classroom performance), generous compensation for unused sick days and numerous other wasteful provisions.

Deep-sixing teachers' collective bargaining privileges would mean that Tennessee's school children will no longer be forced to settle for budget leftovers.

It would also give individual teachers the ability to negotiate directly with their administrators and school board. Teacher unions say that unionization is necessary for educators to be treated as professionals. The exact opposite is true. True professionals want to be rewarded for their individual performance, whereas the union's fixation on tenure protection and seniority rules have the effect of treating teachers as interchangeable workers, no better and no worse than any other.

It terms of serious education reform, it appears that HB 130 is the tip of a very large iceberg. This group of state legislators also wants to end the practice of withholding union dues from teacher paychecks, and loosen the union's power to appoint members to state boards.

Such bold measures would make Tennessee a leader in the education reform movement, alongside Indiana and New Jersey.

Of course, everything hinges on Gov. Bill Haslam's education agenda. If he endorses these reforms, it looks like the sun is about to set for the TEA. Teachers would still have the right to form an association, but they would have about as much political muscle as the local Rotary club.

We're only one month into the new year, but it looks like 2011 could be a year to remember for education reform in Tennessee. Stay tuned.