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Local, state players sparring over teacher union legislation

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Tuesday April 16, 2002

Local educators are sparring over controversial new state legislation that would expand the scope of negotiations between school districts and teachers’ unions. 

Under current law, unions have a right to negotiate wages, hours and conditions of employment. The new bill, authored by Assemblymember Jacki Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, would allow unions to bargain over the processes for selecting textbooks, developing curriculum and increasing parent participation, among other things. 

In many districts across the state, including the Berkeley Unified School District, teachers already play a role in these processes, serving on advisory committees and making recommendations to the school board about books and course development. 

The problem, say supporters of the Goldberg legislation, is that some districts do a good job of incorporating teacher input and others do not. 





“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” said David A. Sanchez, secretary-treasurer for the California Teachers Association.  

Sanchez argued that, if the processes are enshrined in teacher contracts, recalcitrant school boards will have a hard time dismissing the recommendations that emerge from those processes. 

Barry Fike, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, who supports the legislation, said the district often listens to teachers’ recommendations but in many instances does not. 

“The record is a bit mixed,” he said. Fike said the bill would give the federation “teeth” in negotiating teacher input, and prevent districts across the state from simply appointing young, inexperienced teachers to advisory committees. 

Ted Schultz, a member of the Board of Education, said Berkeley teachers are already heavily involved in picking books and developing curriculum, recalling a teacher-led effort two years ago to overhaul the middle school approach to math. 

Board President Shirley Issel argued that shifting curriculum and textbook issues to the often tense arena of collective bargaining would be a mistake. 

“Negotiations are adversarial,” Issel said. “Why introduce these issues to that environment?” 

But board member John Selawsky, who supports the legislation, said it would simply provide another venue for teachers to get involved on important issues. 

“My feeling is that giving teachers more influence and power in deciding these issues is positive,” added board member Terry Doran, a former teacher. 

Doran and Selawsky are at odds with the California School Boards Association, a state-wide body that staunchly opposes the bill. 

James Morante, association spokesman, argued that the bill is an attempt by unions to seize power from school boards. He said any shift in power should be accompanied by a shift in accountability. But school boards, he argued, elected by the public, will continue to be held accountable while teachers will not. 

Sanchez said teachers are held accountable every time test scores are released, and that they should have a say in what texts and curricula are used in the classroom.  

But Morante said the collective bargaining process could lead to unsavory trade-offs on items like books and curriculum that do not belong in negotiations. 

“I sincerely believe that our teachers are far more professional than what our school board members give them credit for,” responded Sanchez, skeptical that unions would use these processes as bargaining chips. 

Fike differed slightly, noting that the legislation could make a tense relationship between a district and a union worse by adding new items to the negotiations. 

But Fike said Berkeley Unified and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers have a healthy relationship, and he did not envision future negotiations stalling if the Goldberg legislation becomes law.  

Morante also raised concerns about debating the issues out of public view. 

“You’re putting all these discussions about curriculum and textbooks behind closed doors in secretive negotiations,” he said, arguing that parents and students would not have adequate opportunity for input. 

But, as supporters take pains to point out, the legislation guarantees parents representation in any process that emerges from collective bargaining. 

Legislative hearings on the bill, AB 2160, start this morning in the Assembly Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security Committee and will move to the education committee next week. 

Governor Gray Davis came out against the bill last week, arguing that collective bargaining is not the proper venue to discuss educational policy, and casting doubt on the prospects of the legislation. 

Sanchez said the California Teachers Association will continue to push the bill, calling on its 300,000 members statewide to write letters to Davis and their representatives. 

He said the association will view legislators’ votes on the bill an important litmus test as the November elections approach.