Grundy County Education Association President Judy Fults, left, debates a bill proposing to do away with teachers’ collective bargaining rights with Kyle Mallory, a Stewart County teacher and tea party member, before a Senate Education Committee hearing in Nashville on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
NASHVILLE -- Tennessee teacher unions could no longer engage in mandatory collective bargaining with school boards under a bill now headed to the Senate floor.
Republicans on the Senate Education Committee passed the measure on a 6-3 party line vote Wednesday. It could be on the Senate floor as early as Wednesday. But its prospects in the House are not as clear, with one supporter saying it has a slightly better-than-even chance.
At least 200 mostly upset educators backing the Tennessee Education Association, the target of the measure, packed the Senate hearing and spilled into hallways during debate. Also on hand were dozens of delighted tea party activists who support the measure.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Brentwood, said the legislation is necessary to move the state forward in education reforms. It would lead to a more cooperative atmosphere between educators and administrations, Johnson said, noting "all teachers" should "have a seat at the table" and not let unions speak for them.
"I believe with all my heart that mandatory collective bargaining stifles teacher input," Johnson told colleagues. "Everything must pass through the funnel of the hyperpartisan, politically charged union, whose primary objective is preservation of the union and its power, not the well-being of teachers and students."
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, took issue with Johnson's and other critics' characterizations. He said TEA leaders last year helped change state laws so Tennessee could win a $500 million Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Johnson's bill, Berke said, "is not about kids. It's not about collaboration. It's not about bipartisanship. I don't think it's really about education."
Berke also cited a Chattanooga Times Free Press article in which TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters called the bill "political payback" for resisting GOP pressure last fall for teachers to give as much in campaign donations to GOP candidates as they do to Democrats.
Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, acknowledged putting the hard sell on the TEA but said Winters was "blatantly" working against Republicans. The bill and other measures targeting teachers aren't retaliation but grow out of a different "philosophical view" on education, Casada said.
Berke said that, while he is not naive about politics, the account of the pressure tactics "disgusts me. And then you see these bills coming."
Republicans, who took over the General Assembly in November, also are pushing bills that would end union-dues checkoffs on teacher paychecks and oust TEA representatives on the state's pension board.
Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, said Johnson's bill would still give educators an impact on local pay and education issues. It "would be totally ridiculous for the school board not to listen to the teachers," he said.
"Trust me, they're going to listen to the teachers. It's time for us to get along. I'm going to vote for this bill because I think it's the right thing for young people," Tracy said.
Heather Hughes, a primary support teacher at Clifton Hills Elementary School in Hamilton County, had a tart response.
"I kept hearing the words 'love you' and 'trust me.' I'm all about 'show me,'" Hughes said.
Grundy County High School teacher Robin Dykes called the bill a "stab in the back for the teachers."
But tea party activists were pleased.
"The TEA is invariably in favor of higher taxes and bigger government," said Ben Cunningham, a tea party member and longtime anti-tax crusader. "They are a political organization."
TEA represents 51,000 active educators and 10,000 retired educators.
Johnson's bill is supported by the Tennessee School Boards Association, the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Tennessee Eagle Forum and the Family Action Council of Tennessee.
It also has the backing of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, which has sought to set itself up as a non-union alternative to the TEA.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.