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opinion
by dick meister

Give teachers a say

BOY, WHAT will those pushy teachers come up with next? Imagine: they're now actually asking for the legal right to help determine what they should teach, the textbooks they should use, and other educational matters.

"Horrors!" say the school board members and school administrators who control those things, however improbable it is that they would know more about teaching than rank-and-file teachers. Why, it's a blatant "power grab" by the teachers' largest union, the California Teachers Association.

At issue is a CTA-sponsored bill, A.B. 2160, that state assemblymember Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) recently introduced. If it passed, teachers, who now have the right to bargain collectively with school officials regarding their pay, benefits, and working conditions, would be granted the right to negotiate on the whole range of educational concerns as well.

They'd be empowered to bargain for the development of new programs to train teachers and to better maintain school facilities, for instance, and for programs aimed at encouraging greater parental involvement. They'd be legally involved not only in selecting their textbooks but also in setting school objectives, in addition to determining the content and goals of their classes.

What's more, teachers would be able to bargain for the right to join administrators in selecting the outside evaluators who may be called in to develop plans for improving the performance of schools that don't meet the state's newly mandated academic standards.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? The bill would finally give an effective voice to teachers, by far the most important people in the education system. Ah, but it doesn't sound so good to the 19th-century thinkers among school officials and their supporters who oppose the bill. They would prefer to leave control of the system solely in the hands of those who have been running it "unilaterally forever," as CTA president Wayne Johnson notes.

It's hardly surprising that underlying the ludicrous arguments of the bill's opponents is the same reactionary antiunionism that motivated those who opposed the passage, 27 years ago, of the law that granted California teachers the right to bargain for their compensation and working conditions.

The opponents don't appear to understand the nature of collective bargaining, or, more likely, they pretend not to understand. They assert that allowing teachers to bargain on other matters would mean turning over the educational system to the teachers' union. As one official complained, giving teachers a say would deny him and others – who of course know what's best – the opportunity to dictate changes in school operations.

"California's teachers are frustrated at having so little control over their professional lives," the CTA's Johnson says. He calls that "a leading cause of teacher burnout and one reason why half of beginning teachers quit within five years."

But what of parents and community members generally? Opponents insist that granting teachers expanded bargaining rights would cut the public out of the process and make schools and their teachers less accountable. They claim that's because the bargaining, as with all labor-management negotiations, would be conducted behind closed doors – "in secret," the opponents warn ominously.

The fact is that both sides must make their initial bargaining proposals public a full month before negotiations begin and that the agreements they reach must be debated and ratified – or rejected – by school boards in open public meetings.

Giving a greater say to teachers is essential if schools are to make the improvements demanded by the public and political leaders, Goldberg notes.

"If the top-down approach were going to work, it would have worked by now," she says. "It's time to try something different, which is to build some bridges to get people to work together."

Dick Meister, an S.F.-based freelance columnist, has covered labor, education, and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor, and commentator.