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Administrator Magazine: Op Ed/Opinion
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Wisconsin showdown.

Alexander Russo on The Union Debate

Which Side(s) Are You On?

The first half of 2011 has been a "gut check" for educators when it comes to how they really feel about organized labor.

When newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker declared that Wisconsin teachers unions had to lose their bargaining rights as part of a cost-cutting proposal, Democratic lawmakers in the state and labor supporters nationwide reacted as if Walker had declared war. And indeed he had. But Walker's brash proposal wasn't the real surprise. The 2010 elections brought in a slew of new Republican governors, as well as a resurgence of the Tea Party.

What surprised many was both the absence of any equal and opposite reaction from President Obama, who had won office with labor support and had even promised to walk the picket lines with labor if needed, and the deeply ambivalent response from so-called school reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee. Rhee and Klein generally stayed away from commenting on the Wisconsin debate—a move many considered to be tacit support for Walker. Momentarily, at least, the question shifted from whether poverty was to blame for low student achievement to whether unions were to blame. The war on teachers turned into the war on unions.

Ambivalence about teacher unions has long existed among the public and even the Democratic Party. Had reformers, many of them lifelong Democrats, become so radicalized by their efforts to change the education system that they welcomed limitations on teachers' rights to organize or strike? Or did they still consider teachers unions the loyal opposition, a group they might not agree with but didn't want to see erased? It's not entirely clear. What no one could ignore was that teachers unions, once concerned mostly with anti-union Republicans, were now having to deal with centrists who'd lost confidence in them.
Reformers might not want unions eliminated, but they certainly didn't wish them well.

I'm no knee-jerk defender of teachers, too many of whom I hear blaming everything wrong in schools on student poverty and far-off Washington laws. Education was troubled long before the current wave of reforms came along, and differences between schools with similar student populations tells me that instruction may not be able to fix poverty but it certainly can affect outcomes. (It's also worth pointing out that, while subjected to enormous public criticism and blame, teachers' job security has been very well protected.) And yet, I'm not ready to give up on teachers or on collective bargaining. Teachers didn't cause the economic crisis, or force lawmakers to create the massive pension deficit. Banning teachers unions (or strikes) in the states that still allow them wouldn't necessarily solve very much. Locally and nationally, teachers would likely remain a large and well-funded interest group. The massive pension deficit problem we've accumulated wouldn't disappear. States without collective bargaining don't outperform states with unions. Proposals to defang teachers unions that I've seen so far haven't been about good government or even school reform. They've been about partisan politics. Sure, collective bargaining is messy and sometimes ugly. But so is politics, and disputes in the private sector, and pretty much every other human endeavor.

To tell the truth, I'm not even ready to move away from seniority-based layoffs. Sure, the individual and short-term effects at some schools won't be pretty or fair. We obviously need better ways to evaluate teachers and decide layoffs in the future. But the vast majority of inexperienced teachers aren't high-achieving graduates who come in through some selective program. There is no teacher effectiveness program standing by, "shovel-ready," to replace seniority. Teachers aren't generally most effective during their first few years, and many leave the classroom for graduate studies or other lines of work. Why slap an untested evaluation system into use just to protect newbies and short timers? The focus on last in, first out seems mean and opportunistic, an effort to take advantage of the recession to push older teachers out into the cold.

As spring turns into summer, it's unclear just how far these changes to state unionization laws will spread. Some observers predict that the Republican attacks will soften union resistance to changes in teacher tenure and evaluation procedures, much like private school voucher proposals created room for charter schools. The most likely outcome, if it can be called such a thing, is that the partisan fighting will continue.

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