By Cynthia McCabe and Mary Ellen Flannery
Turning on the news lately can be a daunting proposition. Each day brings word of a new attack on public workers’ rights and devastating cuts to the funding educators need to best serve their students.
That’s why several recent victories are so significant. In a climate in which union bashing is politically expedient, it’s heartening to see NEA members nationwide standing up and fighting back. Their message: We’re tired of politicians who bash public servants to please their corporate donors and give yet another advantage to big businesses more interested in profits than what’s best for students. Those NEA activists’ phone calls, emails, letters to newspaper editors and sign-waving at rallies are making a difference.
Let’s take a look.
In a resounding win for public school students in Georgia, the Senate last month tabled consideration of a bill that would have expanded a private school voucher program at a time when the state could least afford it. Just as it appeared poised for passage, lawmakers dropped Senate Bill 87, which would have provided taxpayer-funded payments to private schools not subject to state accountability measures. That was due in large part to the effective work of Georgia educators and their supporters, who argued that the bill would take money from public schools that desperately need it.
Lawmakers, “took the time to listen and at least for now have decided that vouchers are not the direction Georgia needs to follow,” Georgia Association of Educators President Calvine Rollins said.
Georgia Association of Educators members made more than 900 calls to their representatives to argue against the program’s expansion, and sent hundreds of emails. One of those activists, retired member Elizabeth Filliat, was motivated by her decades of experience working with the same students that voucher advocates purported to be helping.
“Even with vouchers, the poorer students cannot afford private schools,” says Filliat. “Taking public money and giving that money to private schools, through vouchers, will create another class stratification in schools, but this time by wealth and by class status.”
Alabama Wins Payroll Deduction Fight
Educators in Alabama can continue to pay their association dues through payroll deductions, following a decision by the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta this week that added yet another hurdle for Republican lawmakers in the state attempting to curtail union workers’ rights.
A law passed in December that was to take effect in March would have banned the payroll deductions. The Alabama Education Association fought back, suing in federal court on the premise that the law was overreaching.
Dr. Paul Hubbert, president of the association, told an Alabama reporter that the courts have continually upheld members’ rights to designate how they want to pay their dues.
A few weeks ago, a bill to prohibit the Oklahoma Education Association from collecting dues or contributions to their Fund for Children and Public Education through paychecks was offered by a state legislator from Enid, Okla. If approved, it would have made it very difficult for the association to effectively represent employees and the interests of public education students.
But it wasn’t – thanks to the efforts of teachers and support professionals who personally reached out to that lawmaker, their neighbor and representative, asking him to take a minute to listen. “I just felt like he needed to hear from us directly, to make that personal connection,” said Rhonda Harlow, president of the Enid Education Association.
A judge last month ruled that the publication of the collective bargaining law that strips workers of their rights to bargain contracts had to be halted, because its passage may have happened illegally.
Judge Maryann Sumi, appointed by a former Republican governor, issued a temporary restraining order preventing the secretary of state from publishing the law until she could rule on the case. The matter came before her in a complaint by the Dane County district attorney on behalf of public officials who believe Republicans violated the state’s open-meeting law while maneuvering to get the law passed.
While legal wrangling over the law’s publication continues, Sumi’s ruling sent the message to Gov. Scott Walker and like-minded Republican politicians that someone was watching. Not just the hundreds of thousands who have packed the statehouse grounds in recent weeks, but also the judicial branch.
At a time when many politicians are targeting public employees’ hard-earned pay, a conference committee consisting of West Virginia delegates and senators agreed on a pay bill that includes a nearly $1,500 pay raise for all teachers. The victory won by the West Virginia Education Association also contains a 2-percent pay increase for education support professionals, with a $500 minimum and $1,200 maximum. The salary increase takes effect at the start of the 2011-12 school year.
One of the most daunting challenges faced by the Virginia Education Association this year was the threat to the Virginia Retirement System. Bills introduced required public school employees to suddenly make significant boosts in their personal retirement contributions and would have established a defined contribution plan which is much riskier for public servants than a defined benefit plan. But work with allies on the Senate Finance Committee helped preserve the retirement system.
Public education activists in the state also helped beat back a voucher scheme that would have drained $25 million in potential revenue from the state’s general fund. The plan sought to give tax credits to corporations for funding scholarships to private schools.
Is Your State Next? How Will You Help?
What made the difference in these and other states where victories large and small are coming in every week? Members just like you saying, ‘Enough’ and getting active. If you’ve had enough, there are some easy ways you can get started to join them:
1. Sign up as an online volunteer with EducationVotes.org. Recruit five colleagues to do the same. Once you sign up, you’ll be the first to get valuable information about rallies and calls to action happening in your area.
2. Sign NEA’s National Petition for Workers’ Rights. It’s a simple step but one that sends a powerful message about how highly you value the rights of the American worker.