The political games have come to an abrupt halt in the Wisconsin state Capitol.
After three weeks of waiting for 14 Democratic state senators to return from their self-imposed exile in Illinois, Senate Republicans found a way to jump-start the legislative process and approve a key part of Gov. Scott Walker's public employee package.
They split Walker’s package into two bills, including one that had no financial provisions. Senate rules say that bills that don’t involve spending do not require a quorum for a vote, so Senate Republicans quickly passed a bill Thursday that limits collective bargaining for most public employees, including teachers, to salary only.
The bill moves to the state Assembly today, where it’s expected to gain quick approval. Then Walker’s signature will put the finishing touches on a historic leap forward for the school reform movement.
Teachers unions throughout the nation, particularly in Wisconsin, have traditionally used their collective bargaining privileges to pile extra costs on public schools. As school budgets have grown leaner in recent years, the unions have displayed little interest in accepting the type of concessions necessary to help their employers save money and meet basic obligations to students.
Wisconsin schools’ ability to save money will become even more crucial in the coming months, when the state makes drastic cuts in K-12 funding to help balance its budget. By eliminating most of the teachers unions’ collective bargaining abilities, the state is giving school boards the ability to offset the funding cuts by reeling in runaway labor costs.
If the schools had been forced to absorb the funding cuts and still deal with greedy unions, their budgets would collapse. That would mean huge cuts in student programs, teaching positions, student transportation and other basic services.
But due to Gov. Walker and his brave supporters in the state legislature, the schools will have some financial breathing room, and the teachers union will have to accept a little less for awhile.
Profiles in courage
After the Senate Republicans passed their legislation last night, droves of special interest protesters reportedly stormed into the Capitol building, making it necessary for some of the senators to be escorted out by security officers.
Some in the crowd chanted the words “shame” and “cowards” as the senators left the chamber.
The senators who finally acted following the tense three-week standoff are hardly cowards. They are some of the most courageous public officials we’ve ever witnessed in action.
For weeks they watched as thousands of crybaby protesters took up residence at the Capitol, creating a state of round-the-clock chaos. They watched as state and national media presented the protesters in a sympathetic light, which caused Walker’s approval numbers to plummet. They watched as union activists started recall campaigns to remove some of them from office. And they watched as their Democratic colleagues ran away from their responsibilities and held up the legislative process.
All of that would be enough to intimidate typical politicians, who are generally more interested in self-preservation than doing the right thing. But Walker and the Senate Republicans refused to be intimidated. They were elected to make drastic changes to deal with a desperate budget situation and improve schools, and they are doing just that.
They are not cowards. They are leaders. If anyone in this situation deserves to be called cowards, it’s the senators who ran away to another state, instead of standing and fighting for their principles (or union sugar daddies, in this case) until the final vote.
Will school boards waste this opportunity?
Despite Walker’s best efforts to help them deal effectively with their local unions, several Wisconsin school boards reportedly moved forward with plans to renew or extend current teachers collective bargaining agreements, with all of the burdensome costs intact.
If these districts end up hitting the financial rocks, they will only have themselves to blame. Walker and Senate Republicans have done everything in their power to give local school boards the tools they need to rub out excessive labor costs.
The districts in question are Green Bay, Columbus, Onalaska, Superior, Hartford J1, Milwaukee, North Lake, South Milwaukee, Arrowhead, and Lake Country.
If we were a parent in one of these cash-strapped districts, we would demand an answer to one fundamental question – who is more important to the school board, the students or the local labor unions?
A recent newspaper article speculated that many athletic programs at Wisconsin schools will be eliminated due to Walker’s budget cuts. But that may not be necessary in districts that use Walker’s legislation to slash extra labor costs and invest the money in programs that benefit kids.
We would also want to know how many of the school board members have accepted campaign contributions or endorsements from local unions. There's no point in trusting the school board to stand up to the union if the union already owns the school board.
LANDMARK LEGISLATION IN IDAHO
With legislative approval secured, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is prepared to sign legislation that will limit teacher collective bargaining to salary and benefits, end teacher tenure, tie teacher evaluations to test scores, limit the length of collective bargaining agreements to one year and remove seniority as a factor during teacher layoffs.
Local teachers unions will be completely stripped of collective bargaining privileges if they can’t prove that at least half of the teachers of their district are members.
The legislation is a major part of the “Students Come First” reform effort, designed by Idaho State Superintendent Tom Luna.
The Idaho state legislature, like Wisconsin’s, is preparing to slash state funding for K-12 schools in an attempt to balance the state budget. But by limiting union collective bargaining rights, the state is giving school districts the ability to cut labor costs and maintain current programs for students.
Cutting labor costs by any significant amount would be next to impossible if school boards had to gain the approval of local unions.
“For the past two years, the state of Idaho has cut revenues at the state level but has done nothing to reduce costs at the local school board level,” said a statement on the Idaho Department of Education website. “Under ‘Students Come First,’ the state will take a different approach in order to put our public education system back on firm financial footing.
“It will not just reduce revenues at the state level, but also reduce the costs that our local districts must shoulder so we can stabilize the public schools’ budgets and direct more money into the classroom, where it’s needed most.”
The politics of it all
The most ignorant statements regarding the “Students Come First” initiative have come from Idaho union supporters, who insist that the reform effort is as much about punishing teachers unions as it is about improving education.
“This bill intends to dismantle the Idaho Education Association, put teachers in their place, and make sure that teachers are effectively silenced,” said State Rep. Brian Cronin.
That may well be the case. Are the unions and their supporters really surprised?
For decades, teachers unions in Idaho and throughout the nation have been very active politically. They’ve spent millions of dollars every election cycle on donations to friendly candidates, nearly all of them liberal Democrats. The unions have been regular bashers of Republican ideas and candidates, and have done little to try to mend fences with the GOP.
So the Republicans may be taking the opportunity to return the favor. That’s politics. If you bite someone long enough and hard enough, you’re stupid not to expect them to eventually bite back.
Another ignorant statement came from Sherri Wood, president of the IEA, who insists that the reform measures are being passed despite public opposition.
“Idahoans have spoken out for two months against these bills, but lawmakers refuse to listen,” she said.
Perhaps the union and its friends in the special interest community have been speaking out against reforms, but the voters of Idaho said something quite different last November when they elected Otter and Luna by wide margins.
Both candidates made it perfectly clear that they intended to push for major changes in Idaho public education. Otter defeated Democrat Keith Allard 59-32 percent, while Luna defeated Democrat Stan Olson 60-39 percent.
The voters clearly asked for change, and now they’re getting it.
A BOLD MOVE IN PROVIDENCE
The latest leader to make a bold move in the name of education and financial reform is Angel Taveras, the newly-elected mayor of Providence, Rhode Island.
Taveras recently shocked everyone by sending termination notices to every public school teacher in the city.
The mayor has no intention of firing every teacher. He just wants to keep his options open as he figures out a way to address the city's staggering $100 million deficit.
Under state law, school employees must be given notice about possible job terminations by March 1 of every year. Taveras believes he may be forced to cut the school payroll by getting rid of some teachers, so he sent them all warning shots in the form of pink slips.
By firing instead of laying off, Taveras managed to sidestep the teachers union contract, which calls for job cutting to be based on seniority.
Getting past the seniority factor was necessary for two very important reasons. It would allow the city to save money by firing some of the oldest and most expensive teachers, and it would allow the city to choose the best teachers to retain, not necessarily the oldest
Leaders of the Providence Teachers Union and its allies are predictably furious. According to golocalprov.com, the American Federation of Teachers is expected to spend between $1 and $2 million on a media blitz attacking the mayor’s actions.
The unions want all teachers to remain employed, and if some jobs are eliminated, they want the cuts to be based on seniority.Sorry, but with a $100 million deficit, the most expensive employees are the most expendable. If the PTU really wants to keep every teacher on the job next year, it should be willing to accept deep concessions in salary, benefits and other contractual perks.
Eating their young
So far there's no sign of that happening. That's not surprising. For years teachers unions have been notorious for "eating their young" at cost-cutting time. That means union leaders and older teachers are often quite willing to watch their younger colleagues lose their jobs while they maintain full salaries and benefits.
That system is grossly unfair to students. They deserve to have the most motivated teachers in their classrooms, and those are quite frequently the youngest teachers.
The unions are warning the public that the terminations will lead to several school closings, fewer teachers and dangerously large class sizes. Some or all of that might be true. But when it comes to teaching kids, we believe quality trumps quantity every time.
We would rather see larger classes with quality teachers than smaller classes with mediocre instructors.
Cost-cutting is necessary in public schools right now. Weeding out bad teachers is equally necessary, particularly in academically low-performing districts like Providence. The union won't allow the mayor to address those problems any other way, so he decided to send out termination notices and start from scratch.
It's called bold action. That's what we should expect from our elected leaders.
Education Action Group Foundation, Inc. www.eagfdn.org • (231) 733-4202