Lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban teachers from going on strike. The legislation would also prohibit school boards from imposing contracts on teachers.
But a provision in the bill that calls for binding arbitration when there's a contract dispute has become a lightning rod issue in this debate.
Last October, a strike by teachers in South Burlington caused students to miss four days of school. It was exactly the situation that Burlington Rep. Kurt Wright wants to avoid in the future.
For the past few legislative sessions, Wright has been the lead sponsor of a bill that would ban teacher strikes and prohibit school boards from imposing a contract on teachers.
Wright says Vermont is one of roughly a dozen states that allow teachers to strike. And he says the South Burlington experience this fall demonstrates why the law should be changed this year.
"I think the strike is a nuclear option,” Wright says. “When a strike happens it's absolutely disruptive to the family, it keeps kids out of the classroom where they should be learning, and it keeps teachers from doing what I think their passion is, which is teaching."
Wright says there needs to be a provision in the law in case teachers and school boards are deadlocked on a new contract. That's why he included binding arbitration in his bill. In these cases, an independent person would review the offers of both sides and then rule in favor of one of them.
"It forces both sides to the middle, it forces both sides to compromise and come up with their last best offer contract,” says Wright. “And I think that's a much better, fairer system. Now, most contracts will still be settled successfully and not even have this arbitration."
Darren Allen is the Communications Director for the Vermont NEA - the state's teachers union. He says it is critical to include binding arbitration in the legislation but he doesn't support the approach taken in Wright's bill which is to have the State Labor Relations Board rule on these cases.
"It brings closure. It brings a disinterested, neutral eye and it avoids the two things that both sides say they don't like to do: strikes and impose working conditions,” Allen says. “But that means both sides have to live with the final decision of the arbitrator."
But the Vermont School Boards Association does not agree. Steve Dale, the executive director of the VSBA, says it's wrong to allow an independent entity to make decisions that will directly affect local education and tax policy.
"We should not be giving away that responsibility to an independent arbitrator who's going to make decisions for our community [where] we have elected officials who are responsible for those kinds of judgments,” Dale says.
Rep. Wright says he's willing to listen to other options from the School Boards Association, but he says he hasn't yet seen a workable alternative to binding arbitration.
He thinks there's a good chance that his bill will be considered this year now that the legislation also has the strong support of Gov. Peter Shumlin.
"Now the governor has made it part of his educational agenda so I hope that gives it an additional boost,” Wright says. “So I'm hopeful that this is the year and this is the time that we're finally going to do something to end strikes."
The House General Affairs committee is reviewing the legislation.