So I hear there’s this little election going on in Wisconsin today. As is so often the case, the political happenings are closely connected to the issues of our public school system. One of the nation’s leading education reform voices, RiShawn Biddle, has written a two-part series (here and here) highlighting the dilemma centrist Democrats face regarding aggressive collective bargaining reforms like those advanced in Wisconsin by Governor Scott Walker.
Biddle shines a big spotlight on the national implications of today’s likely Walker victory for the future politics of education reform. You really need to read both pieces in their entirety. But in this passage he really drives the point home:
For most veteran teachers, the value of union membership mostly has to do with the perceived ability to shape workplace conditions (even if much of it is determined by state laws instead of at the bargaining table), and that’s what they like about the concept of collective bargaining. Stripping teachers’ union affiliates of that symbolic power is a critical step towards remaking teaching into a true profession. As much as centrist Democrats hate to admit it, the membership losses experienced by the NEA and AFT in Wisconsin proves that Walker’s strategy was the right one. More importantly, Walker’s move to end forced collections of dues from teachers regardless of whether or not they wanted NEA and AFT protection has also stripped the unions of the money that sustains their influence, weakening them just enough for reformers on both sides of the political aisle to finally support reform-minded candidates and advance systemic overhauls for the decade to come.
More than a year ago, when Gov. Walker spurred the Badger State debate over government union privileges, my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow unpacked some of the key issues in an op-ed, concluding:
An identical repeat in Colorado is off the table. But given our own budget crunch, local school boards and city councils should consider re-thinking negotiated policies that empower union interests over the public interest.
Nowhere has this consideration emerged more than with Colorado’s Douglas County school board, which is advancing through its current, soon-to-end round of open negotiations for an end to automatic payroll dues deductions, unaccountable tax-funded release time for union officers and activities, and special privileged access to district systems and facilities.
The proposal coming forward in the state’s third-largest (and the nation’s 66th-largest) school district also includes reshaping compensation to reward performance and to differentiate among different teaching specialties.
In a recent article DeGrow wrote for School Reform News, Biddle registered his prediction that “old-style education unions will continue their downward trend and succumb to major reforms within the next two decades.” Who knows? He may be right.
And if he is right, between today’s landmark election in Wisconsin and the bold proposals in Douglas County, we may someday look back at this week as a significant moment for professional teaching and education reform.