Iowa House backs changes to bargaining rules for teachers and other school employees

Associated Press

Changes to collective bargaining rules for teachers and other school employees won approval in the Republican-controlled Iowa House Wednesday after two days of bitter debate over education policy and school funding.

The proposal passed in a 56-41 vote, split along party lines. Under the plan, an arbitrator would have more flexibility in determining final contract terms for union-represented teachers and school employees. Republicans said the changes would help districts better manage their budgets, but Democrats said the bill would weaken compensation for teachers and hurt educational attainment.

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The bill now moves to the Democratic-majority Senate, where it is not expected to advance.

The House debate — which started Tuesday afternoon and concluded just after noon on Wednesday, after an overnight break — was the latest conflict in a bigger debate about education funding during this legislative session. Funding for K-12 education in the coming academic year remains unresolved, with House Republicans seeking to provide less additional dollars than Senate Democrats.

House Republican Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, has said he would consider providing more money to schools if lawmakers would consider modifying arbitration rules. House Democrats made clear this week that they had no interest in this approach, introducing numerous amendments aimed at everything from increasing education funding to decreasing class sizes.

"Stop using our teachers as an excuse for not prioritizing the education funding for our Iowa children," said Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids. "You are shortchanging our kids, and when that message doesn't go well for you, you go after our teachers."

Currently, if a district cannot reach agreement with teachers, an arbitrator must choose between the two final offers on items such as raises. The bill would allow the arbitrator to set a number in the middle. Other changes include requiring the arbitrator to consider wages and conditions for comparable private sector workers.

Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, who sponsored the bill, said the changes would make it easier for schools to manage resources

"Everyone deserves a place at the table, even the taxpayer," said Forristall, who also noted that Republicans had increased school funding in recent years.

Iowa has 338 school districts. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, the state had 18 arbitrations between the 2010 and 2014 fiscal years. Of the 30 items decided through arbitration, 19 were decided in favor of teachers and 11 for management.

On school funding, House Republicans have advanced a plan that would provide about $100 million in additional funding, while Senate Democrats want to give schools more than $200 million in additional funding. Despite several negotiating meetings, the two sides have not reached a compromise deal.