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By Dick Meister

Boy, what will those pushy teachers come up with next? Imagine: They're now actually asking for the legal right to help determine what they should teach, the textbooks they should use and other educational matters.

"Horrors!" say the school board members and school administrators who control those things from their lofty positions, however improbable it is that they would know more about teaching than rank-and-file teachers. Why, it's a blatant "power grab" by the teachers' largest union, the California Teachers Association.

At issue is a CTA-sponsored bill, AB 2160, that Democratic Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg of Los Angeles recently introduced. Teachers, who now have the right to bargain collectively with school officials on their pay, benefits and working conditions, would be granted the right to negotiate as well on the whole range of educators' concerns.

They'd be empowered to bargain on the development of new programs to train teachers and to better maintain school facilities, for instance, and on programs aimed at encouraging greater parental involvement. They'd be legally involved in selecting not only their textbooks, but also other instructional materials, and in setting school objectives in addition to determining the content and goals of their classes.

What's more, teachers could bargain for the right to join administrators in selecting the outside evaluators who may be called in to develop plans for improving the performance of schools that do not meet the state's newly-mandated academic standards. The evaluators have typically paid scant attention to the valuable insights of teachers about why particular schools are struggling.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it -- finally giving an effective voice to teachers, by far the most important people in the education system. Ah, but it doesn't sound so good to the 19th century thinkers among school officials and their supporters who oppose the bill. They very much want to leave control of the system solely in the hands of those who've been running it "unilaterally forever," as CTA President Wayne Johnson notes.

It's hardly surprising that underlying the ludicrous arguments of the bill's opponents is the same reactionary anti-unionism as motivated those who opposed passage, 27 years ago, of the law that granted California teachers the right to bargain on their compensation and working conditions.

The opponents don't appear to understand the nature of collective bargaining or, more likely, pretend not to understand. For they assert that allowing teachers to bargain on other matters would mean turning over the educational system to their union.

The opponents have made clear in any case that they're against giving teachers any bargaining rights, not even the limited rights they now have. As one official complained, giving them a say denies him and others -- who of course know what's best -- the opportunity to dictate changes in school operations, whatever the effect on others and whatever mere teachers might suggest.

"California's teachers are frustrated at having so little control over their professional lives," says the CTA's Johnson. He calls that "a leading cause of teacher burnout and one reason why half of beginning teachers quit within five years."

But what of parents and community members generally? Opponents insist that granting teachers expanded bargaining rights would cut the public out of the process and make schools and their teachers less accountable. They claim that's because the bargaining, as all labor-management negotiations, would be conducted behind closed doors -- "in secret," the opponents warn ominously.

Fact is, however, that both sides must make their initial bargaining proposals public a full month before negotiations begin and that the agreements they reach must be debated and ratified -- or rejected -- by school boards in open public meetings.

Giving a greater say to teachers is essential if schools are to make the improvements demanded by the public and political leaders, notes Assemblywoman Goldberg.

"If the top-down approach were going to work," she says, "it would have worked by now. It's time to try something different, which is to build some bridges to get people to work together."

The new approach she advocates would indeed amount to enacting what Wayne Johnson calls "a bill of rights for California teachers" that they've long needed and long deserved.

And it would lead to reforms long needed and long deserved by parents, students and everyone else.

Copyright c 2002, Dick Meister, a freelance columnist based in San Francisco who has covered labor, education and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. ##

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