NASHVILLE - House Speaker Beth Harwell said Tuesday she favors restricting teachers' ability to negotiate contracts rather than a complete ban on collective bargaining pushed by Senate Republican leaders.
The Nashville Republican said she fully supports stopping Tennessee Education Association affiliates from using collective bargaining to block initiatives such as merit pay or better compensation for educators who teach hard-to-fill subjects like science and math.
That would provide school boards more freedom to implement such measures, she said.
"I think there will be a few changes made to the bill," Harwell told the Tennessee chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. "Ultimately, I think it will pass.
"I think anything that has an impact on how well a child learns in the classroom should be taken out of the negotiation process, and I think that's what we're sitting and discussing," she said.
In a subsequent interview, Harwell said she is "open" to the idea of letting the Tennessee Education Association's affiliates continue to negotiate on many wage and benefit issues. But she repeatedly emphasized that "if the [Education] subcommittee I put together is not open to that, I'm fine."
Harwell earlier told National Federation of Independent Business members that she intended to move Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's bill making it tougher for teachers to win and maintain tenure protections before she moves the collective bargaining bill.
The Senate Education Committee has passed the anti-collective bargaining bill, one of several targeting the Tennessee Education Association. The Senate panel is expected to take up the Haslam's tenure legislation in the morning.
Haslam also addressed the National Federation of Independent Business. Speaking later with reporters, he said he wants the teacher tenure legislation "to be a priority for us."
The governor, who has avoided stating where he stands on the collective-bargaining bill, said the measure is "still developing."
"I think we're not at the end of the road on that," he said, "and I think there'll be a few more twists and turns before we get there."
Asked if he might weigh in, Haslam said, "it all depends on how that plays out. But I think I easily could, yes."
The 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association is battling the proposed ban on collective bargaining. But they have expressed openness to discussing Haslam's proposals such as toughening teacher tenure laws and other provisions dealing with charter schools.
"As long as they [legislation] is what we consider education reform issues, we're willing to talk," TEA chief lobbyist Jerry Winters said. "But these bills that are just attacking teachers' organizations are just a great distraction."
Regarding Harwell's comments, Winters said, "that's something I don't want to say definitely we could or could not agree to, but we're certainly open to talk about that."
Teachers plan a rally at the Capitol on Saturday, with hopes of attracting 2,000 to 3,000 participants.
"It's going to show there's a great deal of unrest out there among the teachers," Winters said.
But the Tennessee Tea Party is planning a counter-rally and, in a recent e-mail, asked tea party members from other states such as Mississippi to come and bolster their numbers.
"We need to 'wear them out' now!" said an emergency legislative alert sent Monday by the group, urging members to contact lawmakers. "We have got to focus attention on the House side of this issue. We have the votes in the Senate."
The group said it included Harwell on "this list for good measure. We are also being told that Governor [Bill] Haslam is exceedingly weak. ... We need to apply pressure to him."
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he continues to support the bill "the way it was written." He said Haslam had asked the Senate to "kind of figure out what's going to pass the House and make sure that we have some kind of compromise there."
As a result, Senate Republican leaders have delayed bringing it to the floor.
"But at the same time, I think you're going to see it pass the Senate and probably in the next week or so," Ramsey said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.