I have never been an advocate of strikes, particularly in the public sector.  Beginning last year, and in recent days, several media outlets have contacted our organization about “teacher strikes” in Tennessee.  Members of our organization have always believed that educators have the right to teach without being forced to join any particular organization, and that strikes or work stoppages are detrimental to children, parents, the community and the profession. 

Strikes are rooted in the erroneous Machiavellian belief that the end justifies the means, it is also emphasized in the works by Saul Alinsky.  Most educators understand the important role that our public schools play in society.  In many cases, public schools offer the critical support necessary to maintain student health, nutrition, and safety, including students with severe intellectual disabilities and serious health conditions.  This includes many children living in poverty, and those who are homeless. Professional activists and agitators that urge educators in our state to strike do not care about these children, and truth be told, have little concern for the professionals in our classrooms. 

The former mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, an ex-union organizer wrote in a Washington Post editorial that a teacher strike hurts families and kids.  He said: “under today’s circumstances, a strike isn’t what we need to improve our schools.”  He is correct.  A strike is a throwback to an archaic factory model of governance.   More importantly, public servants usually have a higher expectation associated with their trusted role.  Governing magazine’s Heather Kerrigan points out: “Teachers, firefighters, and police are the public workers who people feel a lot of empathy for because of the challenges of their job.”  She adds: “I think that public opinion and tolerance level for public-employee strikes is probably fairly low.”   

So, as you read or hear buzzwords like “collective action,” “sickout” or “strike,” remember that it is critical we avoid alienating the public.  The old expression rings true: “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”  However, we can and must inform citizens through a more positive means about significant issues impacting our public schools and the children we serve.  Educators do need to be more vocal about spending priorities at the federal, state and local levels.  It is why educator associations like ours are vital, and why we have been engaged in the debate. 

Tennessee has made tremendous investments in public education in the last decade.   Not including new investments projected by Governor Bill Lee in his new budget, Tennessee added $1.5 billion in new dollars to public education from 2011 to 2019 under Governor Bill Haslam.  There is still much more work to do.  We must continue to invest in our educators and teacher assistants, and critical school staff, making sure those dollars reach their pockets.  We must work to reduce testing and give districts other options to measure student achievement.  We still need to work to create a simpler and more fair evaluation system.  We must address student discipline issues that are spiraling out of control.  We survey our members on a regular basis and these are issues of importance across the state according to educators in Tennessee. 

However, it really does not matter our opinion about strikes:  Teacher Strikes have been illegal in our state according to Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) since 1978.  In TCA 49-5-606., Unlawful Acts include that it is illegal for educators to engage in a strike.  In addition, it is illegal to urge, coerce or encourage others to engage in unlawful acts as defined in this part.  The next section of the law 49-5-60., Strikes – Remedies offers more clarity:When local boards of education have determined which employees have engaged in or participated in a strike, the employees may be subject to dismissal and, further, shall forfeit their claim to tenure status, if they have attained tenure, and shall revert to probationary status for the next five-year period. Any professional employee who engaged in, or participated in, a strike and who is not a tenured teacher may also be subject to dismissal.

Public education in Tennessee wins when we all work together through civil discourse to address our considerable issues.  Education is the great equalizer for all children in the state.  Passionate and effective teachers, principals, and superintendents must lead with creative solutions to problems, and not with outworn strategies from the industrial age. In the 21st-century, we must be policy driven, mindful of economic concerns, providing realistic answers to difficult challenges.  Adversarial tactics spurred on by outside groups, with dubious agendas, simply will not benefit Tennessee educators or children.       

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

nOne of the challenges we face in Tennessee moving forward is the need to further develop and align the education-to-career pipeline.  Governor-elect Bill Lee probably expressed this better than any candidate on the campaign trail, and his potential as governor in this arena offers great hope for a brighter future for Tennessee.   The objective is clear:  we must prepare students for the demands of the modern workforce.  This will require targeted strategies in our schools to help ensure every child has an opportunity for success.

The Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) did a good analysis of Postsecondary and Career Readiness in Tennessee with their study:  Educating the Workforce of Tomorrow.  As they point out a “rapidly changing economy requires urgent focus on student postsecondary and career readiness, with greater intensity than ever before.”  This is where Governor Lee can make his greatest impact in education and future economic growth of the state.   He has pledged to “establish a seamless path between our school districts, community and technical colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and local industry to empower students with the real-world skills they need to get a great job once they graduate.” 

Lee has stated that “Coding, mechatronics, logistics, and computer science will become fundamental skills for the modern workforce and I will ensure every student has access to coursework in these areas by investing in the technology, materials, and instruction to get our students the opportunity they deserve.”   This means that we must continually reimagine what education looks like for our students.  And as Governor, Bill Lee will work to make that a high priority.  This is exciting news for educators, who have seen constant change yet understand that we are transforming our schools to the next generation. 

The state has started trending this way, especially in some communities in the state.  Lyle Ailshie, the current acting Commissioner of Education, began his work on high school redesign as a Superintendent in Kingsport.  He received national recognition for his effort.   In Maury County, Dr. Ryan Jackson, principal of Mount Pleasant High School, is also garnering much national attention for his work with STEAM initiatives, dual enrollment and dual credit opportunities and is a champion for the school’s and the district’s Project-Based Learning curriculum.

It is likely that many communities in the state will move toward these flexible school models to support new opportunities for career and technical education, work-based learning and apprenticeships, and dual-enrollment courses for students preparing for their career.  The future is bright in Tennessee.  Let’s make our state the envy of the nation. 

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.