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The Colorado Education Association may face a local control crossroads

By | December 18th, 2012

The 19th century American individualist Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously declared, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” This coming legislative session might just give teachers union leaders a chance to confront their own hobgoblin — choosing whether to embrace it or banish it far away.

Rumors persist that the American Federation of Teachers wants to inflict legislative revenge on the bold Douglas County school board. In exchange for having their monopoly bargaining status and political dues collection revoked, they apparently are tempted to advance a bill that would impose some sort of bargaining requirement on local school boards. To succumb to the temptation would place their Colorado Education Association (CEA) union counterparts in a bind: How would they look having so stridently defended the principle of local control in the recent past?

The frequent and widespread invocation of “local control” under the Golden Dome has grown into a running gag among education lobbyists and committees. Article IX, Section 15 of the Colorado Constitution grants local school boards “control of instruction of the public schools of their respective districts.” But the clause often grows larger than life, with advocates either clinging to or resisting the argument based on the bill before them.

Don’t like a particular legislative mandate? Stand on the bulwark of “local control,” like union attorneys successfully argued in Colorado courts to strike down the state’s 2003 pilot voucher program. Don’t mind the next mandate so much? Let it slide. There are a few consistent defenders of local control, but they tend to be the exception.

Sometimes, though, the “local control” argument is a desperate crutch to cling to when no other reasonable justifications are to be found. Several cases in point involve issues surrounding school district collective bargaining agreements. The CEA has dismissed proposed laws that would infringe on union-negotiated privileges as violations of local control.

The ability to require non-union members to opt out of paying union “dues equivalency” every year during a narrow window of time? The obligation for taxpayers to underwrite the salaries of union officers released from classroom duties? The concerted effort to conduct union collective bargaining negotiations — and all the relevant policies and budget items they entail — behind closed doors? Hey, those are “local control” decisions.

In 2012 the argument poked its laughable head above water several times during the debate over one particular piece of legislation considered by the General Assembly. House Bill 1333 merely would have said any teacher who wants to leave a union or other membership organization can do so at any time with 30 days notice. Twice a CEA lobbyist testified against the legislation on the basis that such a requirement would violate local control.

In the 1830s, for the cause of promoting individualism, Emerson disparaged “foolish consistency.” Looking ahead to 2013, CEA has to weigh whether it would support any legislation requiring school boards to engage in bargaining. The funny thing is a decision to do so would banish its own hobgoblins of consistency, but in service of the collective.

[Above, a video from June 2012 regarding union negotiations in Douglas County; related blog post here.]

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