September will find more teachers in classrooms, not on picket lines

Don't expect many placard-toting, slogan-shouting teachers marching around schools when back-to-school time arrives this year. Prospects are that there will be fewer teacher strikes this fall than at any time in the last five years.

A spot check of states with a high record of school labor conflict, as well as a sampling of preliminary findings by the National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and major administrative groups, finds educators openly optimistic about a quiet return to school in September.

Two reasons are given for prospects of contract harmony in the more than 16, 000 public school districts in the United States:

* Memory of the recent recession is still sharp in the minds of teachers. ''Expectations are realistic that the money just isn't there for high salary increases,'' says Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association.

* Teachers and administrators sense a groundswell of support for education. It stems from widespread interest in the numerous special study commissions on schools and the fact that education promises to be a major issue in the 1984 presidential campaign.

At a time when public education has been under fire, educators hope the renewed concern will translate into major reform for schools, with teacher salaries a major component.

''Teachers are looking to have better times ahead,'' says NEA president Mary Futrell. ''They are being listened to, and have a say in the reforms that are shaping up. The climate is better -- it's not just a weak economy keeping teachers quiet at the bargaining table.''

''Timing is always a factor in a strike,'' Mr. Shannon says. ''The argument for higher teacher salaries is being validated by all the reports. A strike is widely perceived as counterproductive. People are understanding the direct link between education on one hand and economic prosperity and national defense on the other.''

In checks with teacher-union representatives from Michigan, Ohio, and New York, similar views were expressed.

At the same time, some states are finding more money for education.

''Schools (in Minnesota) received a 15 percent state increase,'' says James McDermont, president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers. ''It was as much as we could expect, given economic conditions. We don't anticipate any opening-day strikes.''

Even Pennsylvania, which has the dubious honor of having the most school strikes during the last decade, expects fewer closed doors this fall. Twenty-four percent of all public-school strikes since 1971 occurred in Pennsylvania. Last year the rate of strikes there increased 37 percent (32 out of 501 districts).

Pittsburgh looms as the one major district where ''it looks very difficult,'' says Albert Fondy, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the AFT.

Unlike many states, it is legal for teachers to strike in Pennsylvania. ''The longer the law is in effect,'' Mr. Fondy says, ''the more maturity in collective bargaining'' and more negotiated settlements without the necessity for strikes.

''I think obviously the law is part of why Pennsylvania has so many more strikes than other states,'' says Frank Manchester, former commissioner of education for the commonwealth, and now state executive secretary of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. ''The length of the strike is where serious disruption of schools comes into play. A short strike dosen't disrupt the district.

''But Pennsylvania doesn't have a way to remedy a long strike,'' Mr. Manchester says. ''The law dosen't protect the right of a student to a full 180 days of classes. Fact-finding is as far as we go, but not binding arbitration.''

Aside from his optimism about fewer strikes, Fondy says ''the real problem for the future is the lower caliber of college students going into the teaching profession. Lower pay only attracts that level.''

Union officials, while not saying strikes are good in themselves, do see them as the sign of a profession trying to upgrade itself. They wonder if teachers' complacency with their poor financial lot should be a sign to the public that quality education, as the result of quality teaching, still may be on vacation.

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