Politics » Politics Feature

Turning the Page

A massive teachers’ rally shifts attention on the education front to Nashville.



NASHVILLE — An estimated 3,000 demonstrators, including officials and members of the National Education Association, the Tennessee Education Association, and other state teachers' groups, braved a nonstop downpour Saturday and joined with legislators, representatives of sympathetic unions, and other supporters in an impressive outdoor rally against pending legislation that would restrict or contract traditional teachers' prerogatives.

The rally, held on the mall of Legislative Plaza, was a response to several bills being rushed through the General Assembly by the Republican leadership in both the Senate and the House.

Included in the legislation are measures to abolish collective bargaining rights previously guaranteed to local teachers' associations, to eliminate dues check-offs for members of teachers' unions, to revoke the TEA's right to appoint members to the state Consolidated Retirement System board, and to prohibit campaign contributions from teachers' and other public employees' unions.

Among the attendees were four busloads of teachers and other participants from Memphis.

One of the more rousing speakers on the dais was state representative Joe Towns of Memphis, who told the crowd, "When you see the Tea Party and you look at the teachers' party, this is the real America right here." (A Tea Party contingent was simultaneously rallying near the statue of Andrew Jackson on the eastern edge of the state Capitol grounds.)

Towns said the targeted legislation was meant to cripple collective bargaining. He said, "Collective bargaining gave us the weekend. Collective bargaining gave us safety laws in the workplace. Collective bargaining [put an end] to working children like they were grown people." Said Towns of the bills' sponsors, "These folks hate education. They don't care about education."

He concluded by leading the crowd in repetitions of the chant "If we don't retreat, we can't be beat!"

Another attendee from Memphis, Paul Shaffer, the longtime business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 474, was cheered by the turnout from Memphis and expressed hope that members of the Memphis Education Association, whose leadership had devoted considerable energy recently to opposing this week's referendum on school consolidation, had not been distracted from the drama taking place in the legislature.

• The current brouhaha in the General Assembly over legislation affecting teachers' rights may turn out to be the first crisis faced by Governor Bill Haslam, whose own educational reform agenda would also impose curbs on prerogatives traditionally enjoyed by teachers in Tennessee.

Haslam's agenda has emphasized an enlarged scope for charter schools as well as extension of the probationary period for teachers' tenure from three years to five years, coupled with the addition of poor teaching performance to the list of possible reasons for revoking tenure.

A bill to amend tenure regulations was approved by the state Senate's education committee last week on a 6-3 party-line vote, though Al Mance, executive director of the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association, which traditionally supports — and is supported by — legislative Democrats, had previously indicated that the TEA was prepared to work with the governor on his proposals.

There was some feeling among legislators that Democratic resistance to the Haslam agenda, moderate by comparison with many of the bills now circulating in the legislature, had stiffened as a result of a reaction to the bills that would impose serious rollbacks on teachers' rights.

But such a backlash, if it exists, did not prevent Democratic participants in Saturday's rain-soaked rally from appealing directly to Haslam. Virtually all Democratic legislators who spoke, including Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Mike Turner of Nashville, the party's House leader and caucus leader, respectively, and Towns, made a point of praising the governor as a moderate force and possible brake upon what they regarded as the harsh legislation now pending in the assembly.

Haslam's real problems may lie with his fellow Republicans. The governor has tried not to get involved, one way or another, in the controversy over the stricter education bills now moving through the legislature. Speaking at a Reagan Day dinner in Rutherford County on Saturday night, only hours after the conclusion of the Nashville rally, Haslam was quoted as being dismissive of "name-calling on both sides" and, in particular, made a point of staying out of the argument over collective bargaining rights.

The governor's new appointee as state education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, was equally diffident in remarks to reporters who grilled him last week in Nashville.

Said Huffman: "My focus right now is the same as the governor's legislative package. We're focused on issues that are going to bring quality to the schools right now. I'm excited about the focus on tenure reform. I'm excited about the opportunity to bring in high-performing charter schools. I'm excited about the chance to improve the level of performance of administrators, teachers, students across the state, and that's where my focus is."

• So much attention has been lavished locally on this week's citywide referendum regarding the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter that thinking about more conventional political contests has been relegated to the back burner.

The fact remains, however, that 2011 is a municipal-election year in Memphis, and a few races of interest are bound to be in the offing.

Few observers believe that Mayor A C Wharton is in any serious danger of being unseated, but he is likely to be challenged, all the same. No word yet from former legislator and city council member Carol Chumney, whose public remarks over the past year have indicated she might be keeping her powder dry, but another contender is apparently rarin' to go.

That would be Shelby County commissioner James Harvey, who has made a point in recent weeks of contesting both county mayor Mark Luttrell and Wharton over what he regards as a lack of transparency in the new Economic Development and Growth Engine (E.D.G.E.) umbrella organization created by the two mayors as a means of facilitating the attraction of new industry.

Harvey was one of those on the commission who aggressively questioned Electrolux officials after the giant Swedish-based appliance manufacturer was coaxed to relocate a plant from Quebec to Memphis.

Initially, Harvey voiced similar reservations about incentives offered Mitsubishi Electric to build a plant here that would manufacture transformers. He voted to approve that deal, after noting that, unlike the case with Electrolux (which had been conditionally promised an additional $100 million in state funding to flesh out its estimated $190 million in initial costs), Mitsubishi was footing most of the start-up bill itself.

After the conclusion of the committee meeting at which he had voiced his approval of the Mitsubishi arrangement, however, Harvey was asked if he was serious about a mayoral challenge to Wharton and whether, if so, he would make secretive negotiations and over-generous incentives in industrial recruitment a campaign issue. He answered an emphatic "Yes!" to both questions.

And even though, as indicated, very few observers believe Wharton's reelection is in any peril, the prospect of a protest vote undoubtedly took a bump upward with news reports last week that Electrolux could change its mind about locating in Memphis and was pressuring the state to come forth with its share of the start-up booty, giving June 1st as a deadline.

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