Law sabotages collective bargaining in Md. education

Friday, July 9, 2010

THE NATIONAL Education Association has named Maryland's Martin O'Malley (D) America's greatest education governor. Little wonder. Just days before Mr. O'Malley picked up his award, a new law took effect in Maryland that undercuts local control in collective bargaining by giving a significant new advantage to teachers unions, one they had been seeking for decades.

The Fairness in Negotiations Act attracted little attention when it was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law in May by the governor. But it has major implications for school labor contracts, and they are not positive. The measure, which took effect July 1, strips the Maryland State Board of Education of authority to resolve labor disputes between local school boards and unions representing school employees. Instead it creates a Public School Labor Relations Board, which will consist of two members nominated by unions, two members recommended by school boards and superintendents and a fifth to be independent but with experience in labor relations. The Maryland State Education Association, the NEA affiliate that represents employees in 23 of the state's 24 school districts, ardently sought the change, framing it as an issue of fairness to employees working in kindergarten through 12th grade.

This new board's decisions on wages, benefits and even what matters can be collectively bargained will be binding. That is a power that the state education board never had in resolving disputes. Local school boards and counties, which opposed the bill, are right to worry that binding awards could force counties to accept contracts they can't afford.

Maryland, as Mr. O'Malley likes to boast, leads the nation in education. Part of the equation for success was a system for resolving labor issues that asked the question "what is best for education" and not "what is right for labor." As it happens, the system resulted in Maryland teachers being among the most highly compensated in the nation, which is a good thing; teachers should be highly compensated. But their compensation must be affordable, too.

Now, just as many states are plunging into fiscal distress in part because they have granted overly generous pension and health benefits to their workers, Maryland's governor has seen fit to change a system that worked and to weaken the bargaining leverage of those who represent taxpayers. Congratulations on your award, governor.

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