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In years past at the Kansas Statehouse, it was common to see lobbyists for various education interests sitting together and talking cordially with one another — sometimes even eating lunch together — to compare notes about how they would testify about various bills in committee hearings.
But that was then. That was when the big education issues at the Statehouse were things that united both labor and management in public schools: support for increased education funding and opposition to voucher programs or legislative mandates about school curriculum.
This year, those issues are still on the table, but they almost pale in comparison with another overriding issue that has created a wide, bitter and very public split among the groups: collective bargaining rights for teachers.
Specifically, there are two major pieces of legislation working their way through the process that teachers view as a direct assault on collective bargaining rights.
One, which is currently contained in House Bill 2027, would narrow the scope of the Professional Negotiations Act, which defines what issues in teacher contract negotiations are subject to collective bargaining and give individual teachers the right to negotiate their own contracts, or be represented by another professional organization.
That bill is currently pending in the House Committee on Commerce, Labor and Economic Development.
The other, currently contained in Senate Substitute for House Bill 2022, would prohibit any public employee unions from funding a political action committee with money collected through payroll deductions. In other words, employees who want to contribute to their union's PAC would be required to write personal checks or set up automatic withdrawals through their banks.
Both the House and Senate have passed different versions of that bill and are now expected to name a conference committee to negotiate final language.
The Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, has passionately opposed both bills. But lobby groups representing school boards, superintendents and school administrators have endorsed at least part of the collective bargaining bill and remained silent on the bill dealing with PAC contributions.
That lack of support from the management side has riled KNEA, creating an open rift so serious that some believe it could spill over into contract negotiations at the local level, making negotiations in Lawrence and other school districts more contentious than ever before.
"What worries me about Lawrence," said Deena Burnett, president of the Lawrence Education Association, which represents teachers in the Lawrence school district, "is even though the (school) board chose to support their teachers' rights in collective bargaining, at this point I do not know that our administration does because I have heard nothing to the contrary at this point. That worries me."
The most visible sign of how serious the rift has become appeared last week when KNEA president Karen Godfrey released what was titled an "Open Letter to Our Education Community," which was distributed by email statewide, in which she called those bills a "vicious attack" on its right to collect dues through payroll deductions and a "brutal assault" on collective bargaining rights.
She then warned the Kansas Association of School Boards, the Kansas chapter of United School Administrators and the Kansas School Superintendents Association that their support, or tacit acceptance of those bills, could have consequences at the local level.
"Considering the lack of interest in collaboration at the state level, it is hardly surprising that our teachers don't trust that collaboration will be valued at the local level," Godfrey wrote. "Expecting teachers to accept their reassurance that we can trust their good intentions isn't reasonable under the circumstances."
Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the school boards group, said he understood KNEA's frustration, but defended his group's position.
"We have simply been trying to follow, as much as we could, the positions that our members have taken and tried to look for a way to address that," Tallman said. "We have said all along, and continue to say, that on this particular issue of collective bargaining, we would like to find some common ground. I still hope that is a possibility."
Regarding payroll deductions and PAC contributions, Tallman said that was a union issue in which the school boards had no interest one way or another.
"It's not our fight," he said.
Source of the controversies
Tallman said the school boards openly support one provision of the collective bargaining bill that would remove teacher evaluations from the list of items that are subject to negotiations. And he said much of that can be traced directly to the Barack Obama administration and its push to require that evaluations be tied to student growth and achievement.
That was a requirement for Kansas receiving a waiver last year from the federal No Child Left Behind law. The Kansas Department of Education is now developing a model evaluation system called the Kansas Educator Evaluation Protocol, or KEEP, to comply with that provision of the waiver.
"We're willing to agree to a stronger state protocol that everyone should have to follow," Tallman said. "Partly, we think that's the right thing to do; partly, because it helps us comply with the No Child Left Behind waiver, and our members have expressed a lot of support for that."
But the political issue this year goes far beyond the federal waiver and appears to be part of a general effort by business groups and conservative activists to diminish the power of labor unions, especially in the area of education.
Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, testified before one committee in favor of the bill limiting PAC donations, saying, “I need this bill passed so we can get rid of public sector unions.”
And Dave Trabert, president of the conservative think tank Kansas Policy Institute, said he believes teachers unions are responsible for what he has described as poor performance of public schools in Kansas.
"You talk to superintendents, they say they need more flexibility to make decisions that they believe are in the kids' best interests, not what might be in the adults' best interests," Trabert said. "I think these (bills) are very directly related to that. These are student-focused moves that are being made."
Lawrence school board sides with teachers
The rift also became visible last month at the Lawrence school board when the board voted unanimously to endorse a letter to Gov. Sam Brownback and members of the Legislature staunchly opposing the bill limiting collective bargaining rights.
That vote came despite the fact that Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll serves on the board of directors of the Kansas School Superintendents Association, one of the groups that has endorsed limiting teachers' collective bargaining rights.
Burnett, the local union president, said that was an important message for the board to send.
"For our board to unanimously choose to send a letter in opposition to the collective bargaining piece, as it stood at that point, was critical to future negotiations in Lawrence," she said.
The Lawrence district is currently preparing for the next round of contract negotiations with local teachers. Burnett said the union was prepared to schedule the first face-to-face meeting in mid-February, but she believes the district is waiting to see what happens in the Legislature before making a commitment.
Currently, she said, the first face-to-face meeting is set for March 26, a date requested by the administration. That is also one day before the deadline in the Legislature for bills to pass out of the second chamber so they can either be sent to the governor or assigned to a conference committee.