Another Side to the Teachers in Wisconsin

Education is on my mind these days as I’ve got two posts coming up this week on higher education. But today we’re looking at the situation in Wisconsin.

I don’t think there is any simple solution: my father was a public school teacher; Kris’ father was a public school teacher; we have family members who are public school teachers; I coached high school basketball for a decade with public school teachers. For me this isn’t about teachers qua teachers, but about fiscal responsibility. My experience with public school teachers is that they are hard-working and passionate about their profession.

This article below reveals there’s more going on here that budget cuts and collective bargaining. There is a widespread distrust of public schooling in America, and teachers have to bear the brunt of a criticism that is often ignorant and wildly uninformed.

From CNN.com:

The uprising in Madison is symptomatic of a simmering rage among the nation’s teachers. They have grown angry and demoralized over the past two years as attacks on their profession escalated….

Now conservative governors and mayors want to abolish teachers’ right to due process, their seniority, and — in some states — their collective bargaining rights. Right-to-work states do not have higher scores than states with strong unions. Actually, the states with the highest performance on national tests are Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Vermont, and New Hampshire, where teachers belong to unions that bargain collectively for their members….

The real story in Madison is not just about unions trying to protect their members’ hard-won rights. It is about teachers who are fed up with attacks on their profession. A large group of National Board Certified teachers — teachers from many states who have passed rigorous examinations by an independent national board — is organizing a march on Washington in July. The events in Madison are sure to multiply their numbers.

As the attacks on teachers increase and as layoffs grow, there are likely to be more protests like the one that has mobilized teachers and their allies and immobilized the Wisconsin Legislature.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.stephenburns.ca Stephen

    I fully support the teachers. in Canada, things are different, especially in Ontario, as the teacher’s union is one of the strongest in the country, if not the strongest. But in the US, very different story. At some point, people have to see that these Republicans throwing stones don’t either know or care about either the truth or the kids. Good for the teachers standing up.

  • Least of all

    The following statement was released this afternoon by Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. It can be attributed to Ms. Bell:

    “We have been clear – and I will restate this again today – money issues are off the table. Public employees have agreed to Governor Walker’s pension and health care concessions, which he says will solve the budget challenge.

    “But Governor Walker’s bill goes too far and he has chosen polarizing rhetoric. He refuses to come to the table to discuss the issue our members care most deeply about: protecting their rights, as they are a voice for Wisconsin’s students and their schools.”

  • Steve Norris
  • http://faithandfood.morizot.net/ Scott Morizot

    Well, yes. That’s why I asked: Since when have teachers become the enemy? We already don’t compensate them very well for the very difficult and critical task we ask them to do for us. Now we’re going to villainize them on top of that? The strange thing to me is that Republicans like Walker seem to be successful in their efforts to pit groups who should be natural allies against each other. That’s just bizarre. (It’s also strange and I’m sure has Lincoln turning over in his grave to see the party which was one of the main forces historically behind universal public education apparently now trying to destroy it.)

  • http://faithandfood.morizot.net/ Scott Morizot

    Thanks Least of all (#2). That echoes every single public statement I’ve read and heard from any Democratic Wisconsin Senator or public union leader from the time this began. The Republicans are basically lying and getting away with it somehow. But then, these days they seem to get a free pass on anything vaguely resembling the truth. That’s true across the nation, not just in Wisconsin. They can say anything they want, however blatantly untrue or even ridiculous and be lauded for it rather than penalized in any way.

    In the meantime, as wealth continues to concentrate in ever ridiculous percentages at the very top in America, I’m sure they’re laughing all the way to the bank at how easy it is to pit groups of working Americans against each other.

  • James

    It’s not that simple, Stephen, just as USAmerican views of the Canadian system is never as simple as it’s made out to be. For one, you’d be surprised how many teachers I know are Republicans, and believe that inflexible unions are definitely part (not the whole, but part) of the problem.

    (son of two teachers, grandson of two teachers, a principle and a super-intendent, nephew of a dozen more, son-in-law to a teacher and a professor…all of them Republican from the Carter administriation on)

  • J

    1. The article is obviously trying to recruit opinions in favor of the teachers SO Help me understand.
    2. If teachers are thinking primarily about the kids and their education then they should stay in the classrooms to teach the kids within the scheduled time frame in which they agreed to work.
    3. It seems to me that the teachers argument revolves primarily around the government not insuring their future financial security. Most teachers I know, who have worked many less years than I have, earn more money in 9 months, than I earn in a year,and yet it is my personal responsibility to save enough out of my lesser income to provide for my own retirement . WHY is it that teachers are allowed to inflate their salary for the last three working years of their career and then they are guaranteed, what, 80% of their salary for the rest of their lives. REALLY? And how is that FAIR? And exactly how are they being treated unfairly?
    Yeah I’m not feelin’ it.

  • A public educator

    As someone who worked in an underfunded urban public school, and now in an urban public university, the CNN link is an invaluable insight. Over the past 2 decades, we have watched social services steadily decline in our neighborhoods. Every public safety net that could be cut in these neighborhoods has been touched. For every piece of that net that is removed, another weight is added onto our public school teachers– because they are now the only remaining institution in communities severely marked by poverty. The role’s that were previously filled by social service agencies, community non-profits, and religious institutions have dried up, or are facing record waiting lists. This has made teacher’s the “frontline” of poverty, and they are expected to be the watchdogs in communities that have lost so much social and fiscal capital.

    The flip side to this is that job’s in the public sector have long been one of the primary ways that people from low-income and working class backgrounds have fought their way out of poverty. The health insurance and union support public sector jobs provide lift whole family networks. Teachers are getting it from every side. Whether they realize it or not, those who support the WI Gov. are supporting cutting our social safety nets under the guise of “fiscal responsibility,” which has become a proxy for cutting things from those who need it the most.

  • http://www.normmacdonald.wordpress.com Norm

    “The Republicans are basically lying and getting away with it somehow. But then, these days they seem to get a free pass on anything vaguely resembling the truth.”

    Let’s see…teachers pretending to be sick and doctors writing false statements that they are sick….how does that square with the truth?

    “Okay students…today we’ll talk about ways to lie under the pretense that we have something important to protest.”

    There ya go..let’s fly that under the banner of truth.

  • A public educator

    Sorry! I also should have added to my comment above that the Democrats (in conjunction with Union leaders) have offered to concede to the parts of the bill that would make up the budget shortfall, (IE– paying more for health insurance and decreasing pension money) If the portion of the bill was removed that destroys the right to organize in the union. OF course, the Republicans refuse to concede to this because they claim they need to “balance the budget.” If the people are willing to contribute to balance the budget, why should the unions be busted?

  • http://www.billsamuel.net/ Bill Samuel

    Both my parents were teachers, and I think most teachers are underpaid considering how difficult and important a job it is.

    But labor theory built on the private sector situation does not always translate well to the public sector because of the lack of the profit motive and the natural tendency of politicians to cater to well organized special interests. In my County, the County teachers’ union has been one of the most powerful political forces, and there has been a quasi-scandal about how it controls politicians. They got a contract when the economy was strong which promised large salary increases each year for many years, and this did not look reasonable when the economy and public revenues crashed, and no one else around was getting those kinds of increases. An all-Democratic, basically pro-union County Council wound up insisting that public employees make concessions from those unreasonable contract provisions, and is moving to make permanent changes in County-employee labor relations.

    If you look at the conditions for WI public employees, they are almost unparalleled in either the public or private sectors, even better than teachers in my County. This makes public employees look like a privileged class, and you get the reaction we’ve seen.

    Wholesale attack on public employees and their unions like that of Gov. Walker is wrong, but OTOH in this economy they can’t expected to be treated so much better than anyone else. There is a middle ground to be walked here.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    Bill #11

    You beat me to the punch here. Government employee unions are different animals than in the private sector. Workers in the private sector have significantly fewer options for negotiating or affecting their situation if the can’t organize to collectively address issues. In the public sector, you elect the politicians who make funding decisions. Don’t like the contracts? Then you can organize a political effort to change political leadership.

    Public unions give money to politicians and politicians give sweetheart deals to the public unions. It becomes very hard for politicians to do what is fiscally responsible for the common good. The ability for these unions to have collective bargaining AND the power of the ballot box is an imbalance of power. I favor limitation on collective bargaining as a way of leveling the playing field.

  • Susan

    This problem can’t be looked at through a pinhole as though it were just about Wisconsin or even just about teachers.
    There is ample evidence that this fight was picked by Republicans as a means of “not wasting a crisis”: they want to break public employee unions, and they’re starting with the ones that vote for Democrats.
    The backlash comes from a certain knowledge that this is a Union “waterloo” – should they do away with the collective bargaining rights by fiat, then the final chapter of organized worker-power has been written.
    Those who say the public employees are doing better than they are need to note what was given up and when. Perhaps it is time for Americans to counter the race to the bottom, if not for ourselves then for our neighbors and our children.
    Notice that through this grandstanding the WI governor got the union to agree to all the budget concessions he wanted!

  • Christine

    Thank you, Scott #4.

    Scot, glad you linked to the CNN article. I read it myself just minutes after posting earlier on your blog, and I totally concur. Hence my comments about feeling incredibly discouraged and beaten-down as an educator.

    Ironically, we just watched Reagan’s speech on the Challenger disaster in which teacher Christa McAuliffe (sp?) died. In it, he noted that one of our best, a teacher, had been selected to go into space.

    Today, there are fine teachers doing amazing work, but they’re the easy whipping boys.

  • Christine

    @Bill #11, did you possibly miss the part that the teachers have AGREED to pay the increased pension and health insurance costs? They ARE doing their part. The dividing line comes with the not-so-hidden attempt to bust the unions.

  • AHH

    As Scot laments:
    There is a widespread distrust of public schooling in America, and teachers have to bear the brunt of a criticism that is often ignorant and wildly uninformed.
    we should remember one of the main contributors to that mood, which is the demonization of public schools by much of the Christian right.

  • Steve Billingsley

    The real issue here is the collective bargaining rights of public union workers. Is this right sacrosanct? If this is all about evil Republicans wanting to put down the working man then why did Democrats (and pro-union Democrats) such as FDR and Fiorello LaGuardia oppose the unionization of government workers? Why did the longtime head of the AFL-CIO George Meany oppose it?

    Notice the union is quick to throw their constituents under the bus on the money issue (the increased contributions to health plans and pensions). What they are willing to go to the mat for is not the pay of the teachers, but their own seat at the table of power. They want to hold on to their own influence. If you think that for them it is about “the children” or even the teachers you might want to reconsider that. I feel awful for the teachers because they are caught in the middle, underpaid and underappreciated and pawns in a power play where the interests that are supposed to be advocating for them are really only in it for themselves.

  • Albion

    Kruse #12

    “Public unions give money to politicians and politicians give sweetheart deals to the public unions. It becomes very hard for politicians to do what is fiscally responsible for the common good.”

    Who are these politicians who give “sweetheart deals” with one hand and find it so hard to do what is “for the common good” with the other? I haven’t seen anything in recent years to suggest any politician has given any public union a “sweetheart deal.”

    And the definition of the common good is at the heart of this struggle.

    “Don’t like the contracts? Then you can organize a political effort to change political leadership.”

    Yeah, teachers are flush with cash.

    “I favor limitation on collective bargaining as a way of leveling the playing field.”

    The governor has not limited collective bargaining; he has essentially eliminated it. And how is the playing field “leveled” when the union can’t negotiate? The union as already made the financial concessions the governor has demanded. That’s compromise. The governor wants to take away any remaining political leverage the union has.

    In essence, your argument is that public unions should not exist. What’s good for business is good for America. Public unions are not good for business. I don’t know how else to read it.

  • Christine

    Albion #18 – well said.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Albion #18

    “Yeah, teachers are flush with cash.”

    This isn’t about the teachers. The sweetheart deals aren’t for the teachers (although their pension benefits are pretty good, compared to almost any other deal you can find anywhere else). It is the sweetheart deal for the union. The average teacher is not well paid. But the average union officer is very well paid.

    “The governor wants to take away any remaining political leverage the union has.”

    Exactly. Because the political leverage has resulted unsustainable budget deficits and the issue isn’t just this year’s budget hole, it is about deficits that are will continue to grow in coming years and get worse every year.

    If you think this is about children and teachers you have been fooled.

  • Ann F-R

    Some members of my family have been very active in Madison & the Wisconsin situation. They’ve kept tabs on the situation, and on the inadequate news coverage which simplistically defaults to greedy union members vs. broke government.

    Please check the history WHY the state’s balanced budget became unbalanced! According to this article, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2011_02/028071.php , the new governor signed business tax breaks & lowered state revenues which created a deficit out of a surplus.

    Instead of jumping for the red herring that compares private sector to public sector employees’ pay scales (which are stagnant over the last 30 years, cf. http://money.cnn.com/2011/02/16/news/economy/middle_class/index.htm ), it would be wise & prudent for all of us to pay attention to who is financially backing the governor’s efforts to break the unions. (check out the political groups which mask the efforts of the billionaire Koch brothers, and their involvement in Walker’s election and the current situation.)

    Follow the money, folks, and see who is worshiping at its altar.

  • Albion

    And this is also part of Gov. Walker’s legislative agenda:

    “16.896 Sale or contractual operation of state−owned heating, cooling, and power plants. (1) Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state−owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).”

    I wonder if the governor knows anybody who might be interested in running one of Wisconsin’s public utilities? Government certification? Too costly to the taxpayers. Trust me.

    Good to see the governor leveling the playing field for energy!

  • Justin

    Ann,

    The state’s budget is unbalanced not because of Walker’s tax breaks. It is unbalanced because of the passivity of former Governor Doyle who allowed the union to take more than was available.

    Everyone has to tighten their spending. Unfortunately, that includes teachers. But the reality is that Wisconsin can not afford to pay as they are into the benefit packages offered to teachers.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    Do Unions Kill Prosperity?

    Strong correlation between state GDP per capita and percent of workers represented by unions… …in other words, more union representation means more prosperity.


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