A Case of Crossed Hands
Something about the following quotation — offered in “State blamed for teacher strikes — from Bob Walsh gives me the impression that there’s a long-term plan behind the words:
“We predicted this would happen,” said Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, which represents 28 teacher locals. “We believe this is bad government decision-making and we believe they have a responsibility to fix it. They are killing public education.”
The context reporter Jennifer Jordan has given for the comment is “the decision by lawmakers in June to ‘level fund’ state education aid at last year’s amounts and the impact of a new state law that limits how much municipalities can raise property taxes to pay for schools,” and one can see why the top guy in the local teachers’ union would want the responsible “they” to be the state government. For one thing, it would consolidate the contribution checks required to influence policies. Relatedly, and perhaps more importantly, it would pull the ultimate authority for schools one step further from citizens who share the interests of townsmen. And of course, the state has more places to hide its financial doings and more ways to disguise its fund-raising than do municipalities.
The article goes on to illustrate that it is a deeply embedded practice in Rhode Island to disperse responsibility to no group in particular:
The state law governing teacher contract negotiations does not give teachers the right to strike. In fact, teacher strikes have been ruled illegal by the state Supreme Court. But one or two teacher strikes a year are not uncommon, and usually end when a judge orders teachers back to the classroom while mediation or arbitration resumes.
Within Rhode Island’s General Laws, the strongest language regarding teacher strikes is that “nothing contained in this chapter shall be construed to accord to certified public school teachers the right to strike.” I’ve come across a few bills, especially from early this decade, attempting to strengthen this ambivalent negation, but none made it through to the statute. The rest of the relevant law (although I haven’t been able to find it via casual research) comes from the judiciary. And we all can observe the process that the judges have devised: Teachers get to threaten strikes and to follow through; elected town officials get to complain and take legal action; and judges get a role in the administrative/executive function of negotiating contracts, often (as I understand) requiring that a mediator be employed to wrap the two sides together in legally binding terms.
At no point is there an official against whom the public can take direct action at the ballot box.
Subsequent comments from Senate Majority Leader Teresa Paiva-Weed, in Jordan’s article, give somewhat more than the impression that another doozy of this sort of well-greased circular chute for blame is in the process of being constructed:
MEANWHILE, A STATE law known as Senate Bill 3050 also went into effect this year; the law gradually lowers the cap on the amount cities and towns can raise through property taxes to finance municipal services and schools. The intent of the bill was to control escalating property taxes and force communities to analyze and rein in spending, not encourage teachers to strike, said state Senate Majority Leader, M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, a Newport Democrat who designed the bill.
But the property-tax cap was never intended to solve the problem of school financing — that must come from the development of a statewide school financing formula, which Paiva-Weed says she will push lawmakers to focus on this year.
“I think there needs to exist a willingness of our cities and towns to give up some of their control, and a willingness of the state to accept responsibility,” she said. “It is my hope we can overcome the natural tendency cities and towns have to keep education local and we can work together to achieve savings.”
There’s something almost defensive in her feeling it necessary to explain that the property-tax cap wasn’t intended to “encourage teachers to strike.” The image of a raincoated Peter Falk comes to mind, protesting that he insinuated no such thing.
I may be a simple dabbler in literature, but see, I get nervous when people start talking about overcoming natural tendencies. Maybe I’m paranoid. My wife tells me that I think folks are always out to sell me things. Ah, well, she’s probably right. But that’s me, and it sure does sound like there’s some sort of transaction being proposed here. Control for responsibility. Oh yeah, responsibility and money. Now why would anybody want to buy responsibility?
Savings through consolidation certainly do sound attractive. But one thing I keep coming back to: the town’s money and the state’s money both come from me, only I see the people who spend the town’s money walking their dogs and standing in line at the bank.