NASHVILLE - Senate Republicans on Friday evening voted 19-12 to repeal teachers' unions collective bargaining powers, replacing them with a plan proponents call "collaborative conferencing."
Court-enforceable memoranda of understanding could be struck on items both school boards and teachers can agree to, but school boards ultimately would call the shots.
Members of the House later debated into night on what could become the defining issue of the 107th Tennessee General Assembly in which Republicans control both chambers for the first time in 142 years.
The bill was the product of a Republican-run House and Senate conference committee that sought to reconcile differences between the two chambers' different bills to curb the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association's powers.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said when he arrived at the conference committee, he found the panel's proposed report already written, worked out in secret by Republicans.
"This act is called the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act, and to use that title is the height of irony," Berke said.
"There has been no Democratic input, no collaboration," he told the Senate. "This is the most divisive time that I've had in my four years in this body, and it is really a shame."
During House debate, Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, a member of the conference committee, said Republicans are pushing a "different approach" with collaborative conferencing that is "not as combative" as traditional collective bargaining.
He said the bill was an effort to bridge differences between the previously passed House Republican bill, which restricted but did not abolish collective bargaining, and the Senate version, which abolished it outright.
The bill would continue to allow payroll deductions for union dues. But it would ban the dues from being used by the Tennessee Education Association's political action committee to make campaign contributions to candidates.
Earlier in the evening, Berke contended the bill lends credence to critics' assertions tit was intended to punish the teachers' association for its heavy support of Democratic candidates.
"The accusation that people fought back on was that this was political payback, and now we have a provision in here that takes out their ability to engage in political activity," he said.
But Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, defended the bill, saying "it takes into account in collaborative conferencing many of the concerns that have been expressed."
The conference committee report repeals the Education Professional Negotiations Act of 1978. That law requires collective bargaining between teachers and school boards if a majority of teachers vote for such negotiations.
Currently, 92 of the state's 136 school districts, including Hamilton County, have collective bargaining.
Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said the unions have been an impediment to education reform.
The bill establishes a scheme in which teachers can vote on whether to engage in collaborative bargaining. They also can choose one or more professional associations to represent them.
Representatives and school boards can collaboratively conference over basic wages, grievance procedures, insurance and other benefits as well as working conditions.
But the bill excludes attempts to negotiate over merit pay and differential pay for instructors teaching in hard-to-fill areas and difficult schools.