In Arkansas, we value our public employees, especially our teachers. Over the last year we’ve seen many Arkansans struggle due to the ongoing pandemic. Teachers are being tasked with an especially difficult job, and many are at their breaking point. They feel like the government has failed them, and their students. Our legislature has an opportunity to extend resources to our educators, but instead the majority is using this general session to actively hurt students.
Sen. Bob Ballinger is proposing SB 341, which prohibits public employees from collective bargaining. Moreover, if this bill is signed into law, our public employees’ livelihoods will be at risk. The language in the bill calls for automatic termination of any employee who goes on strike, and it gets worse: Not only can they be fired immediately, they will be ineligible to work in the public sector for an entire year.
Arkansas has faced a massive shortage of certified teachers for years now, and it’s not getting any better. And guess what? Students of color feel the brunt of this. Our most vulnerable children are losing out on crucial opportunities, and the legislature is working to further this gap instead of ensuring equity.
Picking & Choosing: Teachers Don’t Make the Cut
Ballinger originally filed the legislation with no exemptions, later amending it in committee to exclude firefighters and police officers. This decision was met with rightful questioning on the Senate floor. Sen. Joyce Elliott, former teacher, expressed her concerns with the picking and choosing aspect. Elliott confronted Ballinger for exempting some but not all.
“What a wonderful thing that you honor [police officers and firefighters] enough, and appreciate them enough, that you will extend them the good graces of being treated like professionals…” Elliott said. “I don’t want you to take that away from them, they deserve it. But how do you square [leaving] everyone else out? I was a union member all my [work] life. It helped make me a better teacher. It helped make me a better advocate for my students.”
Following the debate, the bill passed the Senate 24 to 6– A devastating blow that sent a clear message: the majority of the Arkansas Senate doesn’t respect teachers.
Teachers Strike for Students
Our teachers do what they can to advocate for their students both in and out of the classroom. That’s why the ability to go on strike is important – teachers are in a unique position to highlight our youth and amplify their voices.
Turner speaks on the ramification this legislation will have on students, implying they are the most at risk if the bill passes. “I think it would be devastating in the long term for students because the people who most know their needs won’t be able to truly speak up for them,” he said. “Without the striking power, we can’t actively speak up for students. Ideally, we won’t have to [go on strike], but you have to have that in your back pocket. Otherwise your voice is pointless.”
How Many Hits Can Our Teachers Take?
Furthermore, teachers are already facing an uphill battle because of COVID-19. Not only are educators having to completely change the way they teach, many are struggling to keep track of students due to the hardships of virtual learning. On top of that, teachers have been risking their lives to teach in person during a global health crisis. As a state, we have to recognize the weight every single teacher in Arkansas is carrying right now. Turner fears many teachers will see this legislation as the final straw.
“Teacher morale is at an all time low. We’re teaching in a pandemic,” he explains. “Many of us feel like we’re not being supported by the government, and now [the government] is taking yet another tool away from us. One more kick while we’re down… I don’t know how many more kicks teachers can take at this point.”
How Do We Save Our Students?
As previously mentioned, SB 341 overwhelmingly passed the extremist Senate. It is now up to the House of Representatives to do the right thing and vote this terrible bill down. But we can’t leave it to their discretion. As residents of this state, we have the power to protect our students, teachers, and other public employees.
We can call, email, write letters, and most importantly, we can show up. Remind your representatives that they work for you. Our schools and the youth of Arkansas depend on it now more than ever. Join us, and together we can ensure teachers have the tools they need to advocate and uplift the voices of Arkansas students.