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PRO: Collective bargaining gives teachers control of their classrooms, creates best agreement for students

By KBell
Jan. 8, 2012 at 10:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 7, 2012 at 7:08 p.m.


INTRODUCTION

Tens of thousands of teachers marched at the state capitol, students staged walk-outs, schools shut down and Democratic legislators fled the state to avoid voting on a budget bill.

That was in Wisconsin, where last year the governor embarked on a bitter battle to strip collective bargaining rights from teachers and other public employees. Wisconsin was in the majority of states, 35, that require school districts to bargain with unionized employees.

Meanwhile, Texas is one of only five states that makes it illegal for public school teachers and other public sector workers to collectively bargain with their employers. The Texas law isn't likely to change anytime soon, but that hasn't stifled the debate about collective bargaining rights for teachers.

Two educator associations in the Crossroads, actually, stand on opposite sides of the issue. They both offer different answers to the question: Should teachers be given collective bargaining rights?

Each session, the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers tries to push a collective bargaining bill through the Legislature.

Each session, the effort fails.

It's about principle for the Texas teachers union, which represents between 150 to 200 members in Victoria.

"We hope one day it is possible because it gets people to sit down and talk about what is best, not just for students, but the whole system," said Dwight Harris, the area representative for the Texas teachers union. "If you have a good agreement, then that should be good for the kids."

Harris often addresses the Victoria school board at meetings, informing them of issues teachers have brought to his attention.

"The only problem is that at the end of the day, the district is still free to do what they want to do," Harris said.

It happens that the Victoria board and Superintendent Bob Moore are usually receptive to teacher concerns and have demonstrated a willingness to look into complaints, Harris said. But still, getting into writing official agreements such as class size limits or adequate planning time, would help everyone move on from lingering issues.

"It allows people to focus on what they should be focusing on, which is teaching," he said. "If you have some kind of agreement and everybody understands what they're supposed to do ... you just go do it."

For teachers, Texas has a minimum salary scale, which VISD exceeds, said Diane Boyett, district communications specialist. Salaries are established by the board and are pretty much unmovable.

Contracts - even Moore's - are signed yearly. They are mostly standard with other contracts across the state, and are almost always non-negotiable, Boyett said.

But VISD has a formal grievance policy for other issues employees want to change.

Harris said teachers are usually more concerned about how collective bargaining could help them improve their abilities to teach in the classroom.

To him, collaboration means coming up with a mutually beneficial agreement for both administration and teachers. Employees are more likely to buy into collectively bargained agreements than arbitrary policies on which they weren't consulted, he added.

Harris said he doesn't support a teacher walking off the job in protest after signing a contract and agreeing to work under certain conditions. But most conflicts are worked out before reaching that point. Strikes, like the ones in Wisconsin, catch more media attention, but neither side ultimately wants to leave kids without school, Harris said.

"Most teachers are not very political by nature, and usually when you get them involved, it's because you've really irritated them," Harris said. "But most days, they'd rather get up, go to class and teach kids."

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