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Making Textbooks a Bargaining Tool for Teachers Is a Tough Sell

April 15, 2002|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO

It seemed like a smart idea: The state was broke, so don't bother lobbying for more money. Push instead for something with no cost, but still highly desired.

If you're the state's biggest teachers union--a powerful political player expected to deliver every year for your 300,000 members--this is the answer:

Teachers are the experts and they want a louder voice in what they teach. So seek legislation making textbooks and curriculum part of collective bargaining.

Whoops! Not a smart idea.

Labor bosses, salary haggling and the McGuffey Reader--or whatever it is children study these days--simply do not have a harmonious ring. Teachers abandoning their classrooms and hitting the bricks over some reading program?

There were screams of protest from school boards and administrators, business leaders and editorial writers. Quiet gripes even from some of the union's political beneficiaries, nervous Democratic legislators squeezed between their potent patrons and community leaders.

Hyperbole, responds the California Teachers Assn. There'd be no strikes over textbooks or curriculum. "Teachers won't walk for anything except money," says CTA President Wayne Johnson, a former L.A. high school instructor.

Anyway, he notes, the bill merely would require negotiation of the "procedures" for selecting curriculum and textbooks.

Yeah, sure, counters Kevin Gordon of the California Assn. of School Business Officials: "This bill is all about greater leverage on compensation issues. The broader they can make the scope of bargaining, the more chips they have."

Moreover, opponents add, collective bargaining is combative and not always civil. Do we want textbook decisions caught up in that?

Not on his watch, proclaimed Gov. Gray Davis, who last week declared he'd veto the bill if it passed. "Teachers should have a role" in advising which textbooks are selected by local school boards, he said. But "I don't want textbooks to be held hostage to issues involving wages.

"The teachers' role is now advisory. Sometimes it's heeded. Sometimes it is not. I would like to see it formalized, but not in a way that links it to collective bargaining."

Later in an interview, Davis said he and lawmakers are "brainstorming" a possible compromise.

Teachers' views "should matter at least as much as administrators'," he said. Perhaps there could be some sort of "academic senate" like at the state universities, but with less power.

The "hard work" in selecting textbooks, Davis continued, actually is done by the state Board of Education, which whittles the choices to two or three. Maybe the final pick could be made by a six-member committee split evenly between teachers and administrators. "If there's a tie, then the state board decides.

"Or you could do it a lot of ways: two parents, two teachers, two administrators.

"That's just an idea. I'm just throwing this out."

Governors' ideas tend to become bills--especially when the idea already is kicking around the Legislature.

"A faculty senate becomes a joke--a debating society," responds CTA's Johnson. "We want to put it into the bargaining process to give it teeth."

The CTA spent about $2 million helping to elect Davis. For his reelection so far, it has donated only $62,000. Johnson predicts "most of our teachers will just sit on their hands. They're not going to a phone bank. They're not going to write checks. They see him siding with bureaucrats over teachers."

We'll see. Under Davis, the state has increased money for teachers' salaries by 30%, granted unprecedented income tax credits up to $1,500 and boosted pensions.

The Legislature's most ardent advocate of the bill is the author, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), a former teacher and school board member. She says the bill's opponents should "stop screaming the sky is falling, which is exactly what they did before we got collective bargaining [in 1975]. Did the world end? No."

Indeed, she adds, "all these guys are becoming victims of their own rhetoric. Wayne Johnson says we're not going to amend it. And I say, 'Yes we are.' At some point, we're going to come to the table.

"But I'm not going to explore that while people are being so insulting to teachers."

The bill's first hearing will be Tuesday in the Assembly Public Employees Committee. It's expected to survive and be sent to the Education Committee, where the sell could be tougher.

Here's an idea: Everybody settle down and help the teachers exert more control over their teaching. Get them more involved in decision-making and pay them for the extra work. Mandate for every district what's already working well in some. But chuck the collective bargaining notion.

The union still would be delivering for teachers--just not negotiating about textbooks.

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