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Race to the Bottom

by George Liebmann

While the O’Malley administration sponsored changes to the Education code in a half-hearted effort to participate in the ‘Race to the Top’ competition, its teachers’ union allies successfully sponsored a sophisticated effort to undo any changes that might result by sponsoring Senate Bill 590, a so-called "Fairness in Negotiations Act" which provides that any impasse in local board labor negotiations is not to be broken by the State Board of Education, as at present, but rather by a new Labor Relations Board, two of whose five members are to be appointed by the unions, two by local boards and superintendents, and one by the Governor; the latter must be someone who "has experience in labor relations" , i.e. an arbitrator or professional difference-splitter. For good measure, the statute expressly reverses the State Board of Education’s exclusion from collective bargaining of matters relating to the assignment and reassignment of teachers, and provides for what amounts to an interlocutory appeal to the Board where it is contended that an issue is outside the scope of collective bargaining. In deciding such questions, the Board is to apply a vague balancing test, "whether the impact of the matter on the school system as a whole outweighs the direct impact on the employees." It is also authorized to consider contracts in other jurisdictions and indeed in other states, although unions are far better versed than Boards in the terms of such contracts. Nothing could more weaken the ability of local school boards to demand changes in the status quo; the legislation has the added effect of undermining the legislation reforming the Baltimore City and Prince George’s County schools. It was passed by essentially party-line votes in both houses and was sponsored by the Democratic leadership. The authority of local boards and the State Board of Education is thus undermined: they may fall under the ‘wrong’ political control.

The progress of this noxious bill went completely unreported in the Baltimore Sun. Its acceptance by the O’Malley administration and its School Superintendent appears to have been a quid pro quo for the tepid union support offered to the much-touted and much-diluted ‘race to the top’ bill.

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