Published: July 20, 2011 01:21PM
Updated: July 19, 2011 11:47PM
STEVE GRIFFIN | Tribune File Photo Lawmakers plan to study banning collective bargaining during interim meetings leading up to next January's legislative session. In this file photo from last week, Ogden School District teachers and their supporters gathered at Liberty Park in Ogden to rally for collective bargaining rights stipped by the Ogden School Board.
The collective-bargaining battle that has engulfed states such as Wisconsin with angry protests and sit-ins may be headed to Utah.
Utah lawmakers want to look at whether the state should ban collective bargaining for all public employees.
They also may raise another explosive topic: private school vouchers.
In a letter to legislative leaders, Education Interim Committee Chairmen Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, requested — and were granted — permission to study three volatile issues: “tuition tax credits” for private schools; the elimination of collective bargaining for public employees such as teachers, state workers and city or county employees; and rules prohibiting public employers from collecting union dues from workers’ paychecks.
“The review of these items is to evaluate what we can do to improve education for Utah children,” Stephenson said. “Are there options? Are there things that are happening in other states that are improving education … that we could learn from?”
He said he is “absolutely not” taking a shot at teacher unions.
However, Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, called Stephenson’s letter a “three-headed monster.”
“It’s nothing more than a concerted national effort to privatize our schools,” she said, arguing that the effort is clearly targeting teachers.
Legislative leaders approved studying the issues, with minority Democrats on the Legislative Management Committee voting against the study.
“We’re adamantly opposed to it,” said Senate Minority Whip Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, saying Democrats had not seen the request until it was passed out at Tuesday’s meeting.
Others share that opposition.
“It’s a sad day for public employees,” said Patty Rich, Utah’s executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), of the union provisions.
AFSCME has a collective-bargaining agreement with Salt Lake City and a less-strong “meet and confer” agreement with Salt Lake County.
“It would silence their ability to negotiate and at least have an honest and upfront discussion about their working conditions,” Rich said. “What right do they [state leaders] have to tell local governments whether or not to honor the practice of collective bargaining?”
The Utah Public Employees Association (UPEA), which has 8,000 dues-paying members among state and local government workers, doesn’t participate in collective bargaining, but does collect union dues from paychecks.
“It would be tragic if public employees weren’t able to associate and negotiate their rights, their benefits and their compensation,” said Todd Sutton, a UPEA employee representative. “It’s a very important thing for public employees to be able to advocate for themselves.”
Sutton said that UPEA views the elimination of collecting dues as a “way of limiting expression of free speech because we advocate on behalf of public employees before the legislature.”
Thirty-four states — and the District of Columbia — require collective bargaining for public employees, according to a study by the National Council on Teacher Quality. Utah is one of 11 states where collective bargaining is optional. Five states bar collective bargaining.
Collective bargaining is when an employer negotiates with representatives of a workforce, typically a union, to hammer out terms of a contract.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin tried to eliminate collective-bargaining rights for public employees and met a furious response with workers staging protests and sit-ins in the Capitol. There were attempts to recall state lawmakers and the governor. Indiana and Ohio adopted similar proposals this year, despite an outcry from public employees.
In Utah, the Ogden School District has put forward a contract for teachers that would eliminate collective bargaining and has given teachers a take-it-or-leave-it option of signing the deal or not returning to work. The teachers have until Wednesday to decide.
On vouchers, Stephenson said the Supreme Court recently upheld Arizona’s tuition tax credit law, which would give a $500 income tax credit to parents who spend money educating a child who has special needs or whose school is considered failing. Tax credits differ from vouchers, which pay parents directly, with taxpayer funds, for private school tuition.
The tax credits might be something worth replicating, Stephenson said.
Utah legislators passed a voucher program in 2007, but the measure ran into fierce public opposition. A grass-roots referendum to repeal the law won resounding support at the polls.
Kim Burningham, a state school board member who was part of a coalition that opposed vouchers, said Tuesday that a voucher program would create a “preferential” system for some students and cost the state more money.
“Public schools should be improved as much as they possibly can be rather than plopping money into private schools,” he said. “I certainly hope, if they’re going to have a study, that they’ll have a truly independent study that will involve diverse points of view rather than just a reflection of what Howard Stephenson may think.
“We know the public was overwhelmingly opposed [in 2007] to the funding of private schools by using government money,” Burningham said. “I believe they still would be.”
“There’s no reason to discuss vouchers again,” she said. “The public has already voiced their opposition on that.”
Gainell Rogers, Utah’s PTA president, said a voucher program would hurt public education in Utah. The PTA opposes vouchers.
“Our view is that a strong public education system should serve the community as a whole and lift everyone to a higher level,” she said. “Money being diverted to private institutions is not the best way to have a strong public education system.”
Not all oppose the Legislature resurrecting the voucher conversation.
Judi Clark, executive director of the pro-voucher Parents for Choice in Education, called the plans to study both tuition-tax credits and collective bargaining “exciting.”
“We have seen a growing trend both locally and nationally to shed the traditions of what the education establishment has used for the last 100 years. We need 21st-century solutions,” Clark said. “We love that legislators are looking at innovative ways to serve students.”
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees