As Dallas School District teachers launch their first strike of this year and second of this contract impasse, one obvious idea bears revisiting:Should public school teachers be legally barred from walking the picket line.
The short answer is maybe. As noted in the space previously, one proposal in Harrisburg — the strike free education act — has merit. But the current system can work if all parties involved act in good faith. The operative word is “act,” rather than simply claiming to act.
There is great appeal to the argument that teaching is, like police work or firefighting, essential to the public good and should not be allowed to be interrupted by a labor strike. But the contention that education should not be disrupted by strikes is weakened by two realities
• The state law, as written, limits unions to two strikes a year and requires that classes end by June 30 at the latest. A potent case can be made to move that to an earlier date; reality has changed for students, particularly seniors, who not only may rely on a summer job for their college tuition, but may start college or other commitments well before June 30 rolls around.
• We interrupt education without strikes, with Christmas and spring breaks, and even more so with summer vacation. There is evidence that year-round school with more frequent but shorter breaks is better educationally, but no one seems to push for that notion.
Bluntly, Dallas teachers made a mockery of the strike-limit rules last year by extending their first strike beyond a state deadline (a first strike must end in time to finish classes by June 15). Union leaders argued the fault fell on the school board. The details of their reasoning matter far less than the reality: The union risked breaking the law by going on strike a second time, and despite some bluster, they didn’t.
Which suggests another tweak to the current law: The state’s determination of the end date for a strike should be final and absolute, with clear punishments — fines or loss of a right to a second strike, for example — for ignoring the date.
It is almost certainly an issue that should not be settled by law, but the step-column pay system for teachers is outdated and even counter-productive. Teachers get automatic raises each year for a fixed number of years, and pay raises for various levels of education beyond bachelor’s degree as measured by college credits. This system creates very different motivations for teachers in contract talks, and complex calculations for both sides when negotiating salary increases. Simplifying it could go a long way toward smoothing contract talks, and would make terms of final contracts more transparent to those who foot the bill.
Banning teacher strikes outright is clearly a heavy legislative lift or it would have already been done. Tweaking the existing law coupled with a concerted effort by unions and school boards to revamp the step column system may accomplish the same goal more quickly.