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GOP fires warning shots against teachers unions -- but where might they land?

Note to Minnesota’s freshmen Republican lawmakers: Before firing warning shots, it’s generally advisable to have some general agreement within the caucus just which bow they’re meant to cross.

Several state GOP lawmakers — swashbuckling newcomers among them — yesterday introduced a bill that would bar raises for teachers and other public school employees and outlaw strikes.

Specifically, Senate File 56 would prohibit school districts from entering into new labor agreements that include any increase in compensation, including cost-of-living adjustments, so-called step and lane changes and lowered employee benefits costs, through June 2013. In addition to barring strikes, the bill would prevent unions from demanding arbitration.

“We all want our teachers to prosper, but we cannot ignore economic realities,”  newly elected Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, was quoted as saying by the Star Tribune. “All taxpayers, whether business owners or employees, are struggling. We must not add to their burden, but still find a way to maintain our high standards for public education."

Could create political hurdle
The measure presents some practical problems — not least the prospect of a gubernatorial veto — but could also create a political hurdle for the party that introduced it. For the second year in a row, Republican lawmakers are seeking major reforms to state education policies, including tenure reform, teacher evaluation and alternative licensure.

The state’s largest teachers union, which traditionally has wielded tremendous influence in both legislative houses’ DFL caucuses, has opposed the changes. A number of DFLers broke with Education Minnesota last year and supported reform measures that failed to pass nonetheless. Without the changes to state law, Minnesota’s bid for federal Race to the Top education stimulus dollars failed miserably.

With the cost of the loss still stinging, this year more DFLers are thought to be willing to broker a compromise on the reforms. And Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher last week signaled the union’s willingness to talk about changing teacher evaluations and allow some alternative teacher licensing.

“I do think we need to make significant changes to the way we pay teachers,” said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. “But I think coming in here with a wage freeze is attacking the problem with a club.”

So — wrong shot, wrong bow? Not if the objective is to add Minnesota to the growing number of states where new Republican majorities have sparked a wave of policy proposals that would affect public-sector unions.

'On the defensive everywhere'
“It’s not surprising, given what’s been going on nationally,” said John Budd, Industrial Relations chair at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “Since the elections in November, public-sector unions have been on the defensive everywhere.”

Bills being introduced in at least two dozen statehouses take aim at everything from government worker pensions to unions’ ability to use dues for political activity. Ohio Republicans also have proposed barring teachers from striking.

“Union leaders particularly dread the spread of right-to-work laws, which prevail in 22 states, almost all in the South or West,” the New York Times recently reported. “Under such laws, unions and employers cannot require workers to join a union or pay any dues or fees to unions to represent them.”

"States that have teachers’ unions have higher student achievement than states that don’t," said Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. “We’re aware there’s going to be an attack on collective bargaining,” she said. “We’re trying to make everyone a low-wage earner with no benefits. How’s that going to help?”

Minnesota already prohibits certain public-sector employees, such as police and firefighters, from striking. But the bans are a procedural issue, noted Budd.

A history of favoring local control
Minnesota education policy has long favored local control over schools. “That’s really getting into micromanagement of how districts do things,” he said. “At what point does the Legislature overstep its bounds?”

Tying districts’ hands when it comes to teacher wages is inconsistent with two other items in the bill that are designed to give districts more flexibility in lean times, said Bonoff. The provisions would overturn laws passed last year that govern how schools budget for safety and professional development.

Sen. Thompson himself campaigned in part on a local-control education platform — which provides a tidy segue back to those warning shots: Perhaps the GOP should consider a freshman orientation on the dangers of failing to ensure that everyone is firing in the same direction. Friendly fire can be deadly, too.

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Comments (3)

I recently read an article in the Strib business section that lamented the loss of Polaris in Osceola and their high paying "15 dollar an hour" manufacturing jobs. This is where the republicans are taking us. It is litterally a "race to the bottom" for American workers and for people like state Senator Dave Thompson, he just can't take them there fast enough. They have raised taking money from the pockets of workers to an art form.

As a DFL constituent of Sen. Thompson's, I think he ought to look at who his supporters were in the election and find out who voted for him before he takes aim at teachers. In this south-of-the-river Senate District, I would be willing to bet that a majority of teachers voted FOR him.

As a former teacher and Federation of Teachers member I have been totally blown away by the number of teachers I know who vote Republican. Really can't figure out why when this what the GOP wants to do to them.

According to Diane Ravitch, former Undersecretary of Education for Research in the Bush administration, neither No Child Left Behind or the new Race to the Top are good for public education. She left the Bush administration before his second term ended and has since researched and written about the goals of "reform" that parents and teachers and societies may disagree with -- get rid of or render toothless any unions, punish teachers for any failure of a student or a school, close as many public schools as possible in order to open private, for-profit schools run by foundations whose motives and agendas are not fully visible.