POLITICS
01/29/2013 12:36 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

Kansas Teachers Union Bill Could Overhaul Collective Bargaining For State Educators

WASHINGTON -- Kansas lawmakers are set to hold a hearing Tuesday afternoon on a bill that could dramatically overhaul collective bargaining for teachers, just days after the bill was introduced.

The state House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee is slated to take up legislation that would change the collective bargaining rights for teachers in the state, which already has right-to-work laws. Under the terms of the legislation, teachers could negotiate contracts individually with local school districts, while other issues would be deemed non-negotiable, including classroom time, class size and evaluation practices.

"Everyone should have the right to negotiate the terms of their employment," state Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), who supports the bill, told The Huffington Post.

Claeys stressed that the legislation, which was introduced by the committee late Thursday, would allow local school districts greater "flexibility" in negotiating contracts. He said the proposal would allow for school board members to set certain terms of employment, including the number and length of class periods that teachers can teach.

"These are items that should be the responsibility of the employer," Claeys said.

The Kansas National Education Association is mobilizing an attempt to block the bill, which is likely to be approved by the Republican-dominated commerce committee. KNEA lobbyist Mark Desetti described the bill as "extreme" and noted that the bill would likely cause chaos for school districts.

Currently five states ban collective bargaining by teachers, while last year a court struck down Wisconsin's law.

Desetti said under the current right-to-work laws, teachers who do not belong to a union are still covered under the terms of the contract negotiated by the largest collective bargaining unit in the school system. Under the terms of the pending legislation, they would be able to negotiate directly with school districts.

"Schools will be a mess," Desetti said.

Desetti said under the KNEA's reading of the legislation, the bill would more strictly limit what can be negotiated. Current laws allow school boards and local unions to add items to the negotiating list, but the bill would prohibit any additions. With class size not on the list, he expressed concern that teachers will be shut out of such decisions.

"What this bill does is, it takes teachers out of discussions on what is best for kids," he said.

Desetti also criticized the speed with which the bill has moved from introduction to committee hearing. The commerce committee has quickly tackled a series of bills opposed by labor unions, including legislation passed last week that a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce said would help "get rid of" public employee unions.

With conservative Republicans firmly entrenched in the state House and Senate following the 2012 election, and Gov. Sam Brownback (R) leading the conservative Republican faction, a series of right-wing bills have been introduced and passed committees in quick succession.

"I've never seen bills go through the Kansas legislature this quick in my life," Desetti said.

State Rep. Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) voiced similar concerns last week.

The evaluation section of the teachers union bill is emerging as a point of contention between Republicans and the KNEA, with Claeys questioning why teachers should be able to negotiate the terms of their evaluations, which is not open to other employees in the state. Desetti said that the current practice only places the methods of evaluation on the table, but that school districts retain the right to handle the details of individual evaluations. Desetti noted that the union and school districts are working with the state Department of Education to draft new evaluation guidelines, and that the legislation would kill the effort.

Desetti expressed concern over the long-term legal consequences of the bill and its possible impact on the labor movement in the state.

"We'll be in litigation for years," Desetti said. "This sets back labor relations in the teaching profession 40 to 50 years."

Claeys disagreed.

"We're a right-to-work state," he said. "This is in line with our values. We allow for individuals to make these choices on their own."

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