THE days of widespread teacher strikes - thousands marching out of the classrooms of America in rancor and bitterness - are mostly over. After 30 years, collective bargaining is an established practice in the nation's 15,000 school districts. Most contract disputes are solved amicably. Credit for that can be split between the power of the collective bargaining idea itself, which redressed earlier injustices, and the decade-long acknowledgment by Americans of the importance of education and of paying teachers more.
Some school districts still have problems, however. The teachers' strike in Los Angeles last year lasted only two weeks. But it poisoned the atmosphere in the schools for half the year. That's often the case with these strikes. Bad will is created, and it lingers.
Partly in response to a rash of small strikes in his state last year, California Assemblyman Jack O'Connell (D) and California Superintendent of Instruction Bill Honig are proposing legislation to replace collective bargaining with binding arbitration. Teachers would give up the right to strike in exchange for settling disputes within an agreed-upon time frame. The process stresses pre-negotiation, and allows three months of bargaining. Actual negotiations would take place face to face. Disputes not settled quickly would end up before a neutral panel. The idea is to nip poisonous feelings in the bud.
Whether the idea will work is another story. Circumstances in Connecticut, the only other state with arbitration, are so different that it isn't a fair case study. Teacher unions in California are opposed to the idea - with some justification. It's conceivable that neither side would give away anything up front, and disputes would constantly be arbitrated by the panel. Why give up the threat (and the right) of a strike?
Nevertheless, at a time when teachers are demanding they be treated as professionals and paid accordingly, the idea of moving past contentious strikes deserves at least a public hearing. Creative variations on the arbitration theme are possible. Different districts might test arbitration, say, for a five-year trial period.
For students' sake, it is worth trying to solve contract-disputes without the anguish of a strike.