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PET’s ‘Christmas Wish List for Educators’

 Press Release from Professional Educators of Tennessee, Dec. 14, 2011:

By J.C. Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee

Public schools across the nation are about to embark on that most joyous of holidays: Christmas Break. And many educators across the state of Tennessee are really looking forward to this hiatus in the school year for a multitude of reasons. Tennessee has undergone tremendous changes in public education. In fact, many could argue Tennessee is catching up with Florida as the number one destination for school reform in the nation. The easy road would have been to stay average and go with the flow. But Tennesseans want better for their children and public officials have responded.

Little doubt that Tennessee has made significant progress in education in the last few years. High school graduation rates have increased, and far more Tennessee students are going to college. However, the improvements we have made in our public schools have not always kept up with the transformation in society that requires more students to be more highly educated than ever before. While educating most people to a minimal or moderate level and a few people to a very high level was sufficient 20 to 30 years ago, today’s economy demands that all students receive a high-quality education. The demands on our schools have increased exponentially.

Mike Sheppard, General Counsel of Professional Educators of Tennessee, astutely points out: “Teachers must exercise a higher duty of care than most professionals. Teachers face exposure to liability much greater than does the average citizen. Nearly every day, teachers must deal with diverse laws related to issues such as child abuse, student discipline, negligence, defamation, student records and copyright infringement. And still they must teach!” And they must teach in uncertain economic times when many states and school districts have stringent budgets, have exhausted reserve funds and are continually looking at further reductions.

We have to be realistic that the demands we place on educators while in transition with reforms. As much as we believe teachers and administrators possess superhuman powers, they face even greater herculean challenges. We have done what the state and many local education agencies have done by transforming ourselves into an invaluable voice across Tennessee for public education by revamping our processes, systems, and culture around the demands of society by supporting students and teachers. It is imperative that we all continue to act with integrity, mutual respect while focusing on accountability and high standards.

As we say goodbye to 2011 and hello to 2012 we must put a few items on our Christmas List and make a few resolutions for the upcoming year. First, we can agree that we must support teachers and administrators as they work to meet the educational challenges that our state encounters. Second, let’s fix the current evaluation system to make sure all school systems have the capacity to evaluate all teachers fairly. This must include more training to become more consistent, as well as an appeal process. Third, many educators face false accusations of varying degrees. Perhaps the state should take a hard look at legislation that prohibits frivolous and clearly false lawsuits against educators. We cannot have an environment where teachers are more focused on trying to avoid litigation than on providing the best educational environment possible for their students. Fourth, it would be invaluable if Tennessee parents make their children’s education a top priority in their homes. Then we will begin to see more success in our schools. Fifth, even in tough economic times, we must ensure that our local school systems are monetarily sound and able to maintain their current level of instruction, but they also need additional revenue to support necessary educational reforms. Along those lines we must also hold down the cost on higher education. Postsecondary education is a key to economic mobility for Tennesseans and economic competitiveness for our state.

Tackling those five items, we should see students leave Tennessee classrooms better prepared academically, socially, and emotionally in 2012, as well as making a lasting impression across the state. As professionals, Tennessee teachers are committed to supporting quality public education and the professional rights and obligations of the education community. As an organization, we are striving to become the provider of the programs and services that enable educators and schoolchildren to achieve their highest potential. Educators must work more intimately in partnership with parents, business, communities and local/state government. In 2012 it is time we all move forward together.

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PET: ‘Collective Bargaining is Monopoly Bargaining’

Press Release from J. C. Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, March 16, 2011:

As a professional association, Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) believes it takes everyone working together to improve Tennessee public schools. But the teachers’ union only wants their voice heard and is only interested in an agenda that only benefits them. One of PET’s guiding tenets is that educators have the right to work in public schools without being forced to join any particular organization. They can join our organization, they can join the union, they can join one of the other organizations in the state or they can join nothing at all. Tennessee is a “right to work” state. This means by law, employees cannot be forced to join a professional organization as a term of employment.

A key difference between our organization and the teachers union is that PET is a democratically run association, relying on input from our members here in Tennessee. We are not reliant upon a Washington DC teacher union with an out of touch political and social agenda to determine our goals or objectives. That is another key reason that the exclusivity of teachers unions is intrinsically unfair, not only to our members—but to other teachers, taxpayers, parents and policymakers at every level.

Unions make collective bargaining look like a great service they perform for seemingly nothing. Teachers, however, must pay for these services with dues. Dues can total almost $600 per school year. Why do union leaders want exclusive representation in school districts? Because exclusive representation can lead to total control over all teachers in a district, even to determine who will teach and who will be fired. That is too much power to vest in any ONE organization that does not have to be accountable to taxpayers in this state. The better term for collective bargaining is monopoly bargaining.

Collective Bargaining is not going to work if it continues as a monopoly in education, and most people across the state realize this fact. We need to work together in a more collaborative fashion. We understand clearly that public education is dealing with more rapid change than ever before:

  • We are preparing students for jobs that have not yet been created…
  • We are preparing students to use technologies that have not yet been invented…
  • We are preparing students to solve problems that we don’t yet know will arise.

One organization cannot have all the answers. And the teachers’ union is proving that by clinging to an outdated and adversarial system they are failing to help teachers recapture our position as respected professionals on the issue of public education. They are making it clear that they do not understand the financial crisis in many local and state governments and confirming they cannot act for the common good.

Teachers who believe in freedom of association and freedom of choice say they are captive passengers because they are forced to accept representation they do not want. They believe if union officials consider it a burden to represent them, then they should only be allowed to represent their members, and nonmembers should be allowed to speak for themselves. We agree.

Let’s be clear- our organization is not anti-union, and politically we are non-partisan. However, we believe that new realities require new thinking, pragmatic solutions, and fresh ideas. Otherwise, we fear that the voices of teachers will not be heard, and the experiences of teachers not considered.

We also agree, with our union friends, that it is important that the legislature provide a basis for policy dialogue and opportunities for greater collaboration in defining and implementing educational goals, policies and practices. We argue it is time to incorporate trust, problem-solving, and cooperation into the bargaining procedures if it is to continue in the state. The difficult job of the legislature is to provide an effective and professional framework for teachers and school districts to collaborate more efficiently.

We suggest these key principles for collaboration:

  • Framework built on well-structured conceptual understanding of actual teacher needs, student needs, and societal expectations.
  • Coordination across different stakeholder perspectives
    • Systematic integration of insights from students, parents, teachers,principals, system-leaders and other key stakeholders.
  • Productive data-driven feedback, at appropriate levels to drive improvement at multiple levels including the state and local.

Collaboration Not Confrontation

Since teachers are highly educated, well-credentialed professionals with substantial independent, but critical responsibilities, the traditional union monopoly collective bargaining model may or may not work for all teachers across the state going forward. Teachers should debate and consider this model’s benefits and drawbacks as it applies to them today. That is another reason to be more inclusive in the future. It is projected by research that a true estimate of teacher union representation of classroom teachers is much closer to 55% to 60% of teachers statewide.

No matter the actual numbers, we believe that most educators agree that trust and respect for colleagues and stakeholders are the cornerstones in building a cooperative environment. Establishing trust may be difficult. As personal relationships develop and the adversarial aspect is eliminated, a sound foundation for mutual respect and trust can gradually take shape. Then the basis of a cooperative bargaining approach can be built.

Monopoly collective bargaining, on the other hand, is a process by which management and labor (school boards and educators) negotiate to reach an agreement on working conditions such as salaries, hours and benefits. We think some of these issues may actually need to be addressed at the state legislature. And we are willing to work with anyone here in the General Assembly to help teachers and school personnel achieve greater salaries and benefits. We believe that greater collaboration only benefits Tennessee teachers, and surely that should be our goal.

PET also believes that teachers and school boards should not be adversarial to the other, but to the extent possible, work together for the benefit of students, improve performance, attract future teachers, and retain and obtain benefits necessary to keep quality teachers in the classroom. The damage done in many communities by collective bargaining means that teachers must strive to enhance their image in the public’s mind, and be viewed by the public and policy makers as advocates for students. Teachers are the greatest advocates for children, but sadly that image has been lost.

We have known from the onset of this legislation that the teachers’ union would fight for monopoly collective bargaining. The reason the fight has been so bitter is because collective bargaining is where the Tennessee Education Association or their affiliate is granted exclusivity over teachers. By exclusivity it is generally described this way: 1) The Association shall have the exclusive right to post notices of Association activities and matters of Association concern on employee bulletin boards, in an area used exclusively by employees. No other organization seeking to represent employees or soliciting memberships shall be allowed the rights of access described in this article. 2) No other organization claiming to represent educators shall be granted the rights as described in any portion of Article IV. (i.e. use of facilities, faculty meetings, access to members, communications, and board meetings). We have worked hard to get this part of the collective bargaining provision stricken. It is inherently un-American that one organization be given exclusivity over all teachers in a school district to the point that other organizations are discriminated against.

We believe that teachers have a unique voice and should be heard on all matters relating to education, that teachers need to be aware of new political realities in the state, that a teachers’ association should strive to avoid being identified exclusively with any political party, that local classroom teachers need to be the driving force in defining a teacher’s role and responsibilities, that teachers should define a teacher’s association’s goals and objectives.

PET supports inclusive policies in which all employee organizations are allowed to consult with school boards on issues important to the organization’s members. As an educator organization, even if PET was the group designated to represent employees in districts, we believe it takes an entire community to educate Tennessee’s children. This includes parents, faculty, and even employee organizations that have different beliefs than our own. A policy built around inclusion would protect educators against being coerced to join an organization that might not represent their beliefs and being forced to pay exorbitant union dues.

In any negotiating process, lines of communication must be kept open between both parties and within each party. Negotiation, after all, is a process of interacting for the sake of reaching a satisfactory agreement. Members of each side must be informed of developments (or lack of them) at the bargaining table. Keeping such information flowing reduces the possibility of misunderstandings and can help speed up negotiations. When those negotiations are adversarial lines of communication are shut down. Being willing to alter demands, writing trust agreements and memoranda of understanding, and selecting respected, credible members on negotiating teams all contribute to the cooperative spirit that is at the root of collaborative bargaining.

Professional Educators of Tennessee believes that schools are not factories, classrooms are not assembly lines and children are not widgets. We have in the past spoken out against the negative baggage that goes with traditional, industrial-style monopoly collective bargaining. We oppose teacher strikes and work stoppages because they impact the children we teach. We oppose forced unionism and agency shop. Tennessee has more than one teacher group because PET has always defended the right of Tennessee teachers to join the organization that best meets their needs — or to join nothing at all. Your freedom to choose is an essential right.

There is great confidence by many teachers across the state that Tennessee lawmakers will ultimately study the issue and reach a fair and appropriate conclusion. Hopefully all legislators can reach universal agreement that whatever legislation ultimately comes out of Nashville on this matter. The principles we espouse will establish a peaceful, stable employer-employee relationship. We advocate the protection of the rights of ALL teachers to be members of the organization of their choice with equal access; protection of the right of the taxpayer through their elected representatives to control government policy and the cost of government; and, governmental services will be provided in the most efficient and orderly manner possible.

J. C. Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.