NASHVILLE - While Senate Republicans largely support a statewide law banning collective bargaining for teachers, some of their House counterparts are talking about leaving the decision in local government hands.
"There are members in our caucus who would be more comfortable with the bill if there were some local options there," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. He nonetheless called the bill a "legitimate idea and something that needs to be considered."
Some school boards, McCormick said, "have had a very bad experience. In certain parts of the state, like Chattanooga, we've had a better experience."
"I expect to see some kind of a compromise amendment that would allow local school boards and local governments to decide whether or not it would be in their best interests to negotiate," he said.
In recent days, fights over ending mandatory collective bargaining have started boiling over in Tennessee and several other states. One of those is Wisconsin, where thousands of teachers have protested outside the Capitol and Democrats walked out of the Legislature to try to stall Republican action.
The 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association opposes a bill by Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Brentwood, that would end mandatory collective bargaining for teachers.
Last week, more than 200 TEA members packed a Senate hearing room and a nearby hallway as the Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee debated Johnson's bill.
Many conservative groups support the measure; dozens of tea party and other conservative activists also were at the hearing.
The bill passed 6-3.
Under a 1978 law, school boards must negotiate with teachers unions in districts where most educators have voted to let groups represent them.
Tennessee has collective bargaining in 92 of 136 districts, including Hamilton County.
Republicans have a 20-13 majority in the Senate. They have a 64-34 edge in the House, with one independent.
The Tennessee Education Association's chief lobbyist, Jerry Winters, said that while he is "glad" to hear House members are considering an alternative to the Senate bill, he cautioned that negotiations are "a two-way street."
"I can't imagine that we would want to allow a school board to unilaterally decide whether or not they wanted to talk with teachers," Winters said. "Obviously we're willing to sit down and talk about this whole [House] movement."
But he noted "it sounds like it's locking the teachers out on the front end."
Southeast Tennessee lawmakers had mixed views on the legislation, and they didn't break down along precise party lines.
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said he was familiar with discussions about letting local governments and school boards decide.
"I'd like to see the House Education Committee pick it up first and see what's possible," Bell said. "Sometimes legislation is not what everybody wants but what's possible."
In earlier interviews, Reps. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, and Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said they weren't familiar with Johnson's bill. It is sponsored in the House by Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville.
"I certainly support the premise," Floyd said. "I've been on both sides of collective bargaining."
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, said efforts to strip the TEA of collective bargaining rights and other GOP bills, including eliminating payroll deductions for teachers' dues, are "part of the national agenda to break the back of the National Education Association."
Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, voiced similar views.
"I think there's a national movement to eliminate school associations," she said. "All of this, I feel, is part of the movement to privatize education."
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who sits on the Senate Education Committee, said last week the bill detracts from efforts to advance education.
Berke also said he was disgusted to hear that one of the bill's House sponsors last fall pressured TEA to split campaign contributions evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, predicted the Senate bill will pass on the floor. He noted that teachers are the only group with collective bargaining rights in Tennessee.
He rejected TEA charges that the bill amounts to political "payback." Similar legislation introduced in the past failed to get anywhere when Democrats had control, he said.
"We should debate just the whole idea of government unions anyway -- the idea that people who hire you, who are the electors, then sit down with you [school board] to negotiate their deal," Watson said. "Obviously you're going to do everything to keep them happy. I just have a fundamental issue with government unions. I think they're inherently conflicted."