Teacher contract talks could be better, but they mostly work out

From BurlingtonFreePress.com

Vermonters should welcome any attempt to reduce the chances of another school district suffering through a nine-day teachers strike such as the one that ended this past week in Bennington County.

Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca has revived the idea of looking at taking away both the teachers' right to strike and a school board's power to impose contracts. He proposes contract disputes be settled by binding arbitration when the two sides reach an impasse.

This is an interesting idea but there are certainly drawbacks. Advocates of binding arbitration must show strong evidence that the approach yields significant benefits for all parties before pushing the state to make major changes to the current collective bargaining formula that in most cases produces a contract without much rancor.

More important is Vilaseca's point that Vermont needs to explore ideas that might lead to less contentious contract negotiations and fewer disruptions for students and their families. Looking for better is a worthwhile exercise.

Darren Allen, spokesman for the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, says the teachers union always welcomes discussions about how things might be done better. But Allen says both strikes and imposed contracts have been relatively rare -- he counts about two dozen of each over the past 40 years -- and the best solution is to have local people work things out among themselves.

Vilaseca says requiring binding arbitration -- a system used in several states including New Hampshire -- puts pressure on both sides to come to an agreement or risk losing control of the outcome of the contract talks, but adds there may be other ideas worth studying. The commissioner says the goal is to look for a process that is "fair, equitable and both sides can agree on the way to get there."

The very public nature of strikes and contract settlements make teachers too easy a target for those fed up with seeing their property taxes rise every year to pay for public schools.

Imposing a contract might solve the issue for that year, but the school board is likely to face even tougher negotiations in the next round with the most touchy issues unresolved.

Certainly, student learning suffers when school shuts down during a teachers strike. That should worry anyone in the community who understands how important early schooling is to the long-term success of the next generation, and the increased competition for college entrance and jobs that places so much pressure on today's high schoolers.

The fact that many people are as concerned about how an unscheduled school closing disrupts work and family life also means that the public schools have become much more than only about what is taught and learned in the classroom.

The broad impact of a school closed by failed labor talks argues for always exploring ways to better the chances of the school board and teachers in every community coming to an agreement without resorting to extreme measures.

But there's no need for drastic changes -- such as banning strikes -- where major problems hardly exist.

The teachers and school boards come to a contract agreement through normal negotiations in the overwhelming majority of cases, and each year most communities vote to approve school budgets that pay for those contracts.

When the voters are truly fed up, they will let the schools know.