Midwest unrest: The view from Washington

As union protests in Madison, Columbus, and elsewhere loop continuously on cable TV, it cannot be easy to be an education-reform-minded Democrat. They're honorable folks; their commitment to bold education reform seems genuine; and they've generally been willing to push for a host of promising changes in policy and practice that rub teacher unions the wrong way. (Well, not vouchers!) They've been reasonably candid in fingering those same unions as obstacles to programs and initiatives that put kids' interests first.

At the same time, most of them have labored?especially the elected officials and wannabes?not to burn all their union bridges. Some of the most prominent of them (starting with Messrs. Obama and Duncan) have even created opportunities to ?reach out? to union leaders with encouraging words if not actual hugs. And the many billions shoveled from Washington into public-education coffers these last two years?billions devoted almost entirely to preserving teacher jobs?have gone a long way to salve whatever wounds were caused by support for charter schools, achievement-linked teacher evaluations, etc. The basic stance of reform-minded Democrats vis-?-vis the unions seems to be ?tough love??and it's no stretch to observe that the signs of love have exceeded (certainly in cash value) the tough bits.

Now it's getting harder for them. The 2010 elections combined with staggering federal and state deficits to spell a ?new normal? for reform-minded Democrats. The ?tough love? strategy is vastly harder to pull off?especially the love part?and they've now got to choose the side of the proverbial line on which they will stand. On one side are the unions, pretty much demanding business-as-usual, complete with tenure, seniority, scheduled raises, Cadillac pensions, ample fringe benefits, and the right to bring just about everything to the bargaining table. Of course, there are huge dollar costs there and essentially no reforming.

On the other side can be found governors like Christie, Kasich, Daniels, and Walker, not to mention the GOP freshmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. Not only are they pushing hard for deep cuts in government budgets at every level; they are also attacking the dearest possessions of public employees, including job security, predictable salary increases, generous (and immutable) benefits, even the right to bargain collectively itself.

Note that this GOP agenda is not mainly about education reform per se?though the proposed changes would indeed make it easier to weed out incompetent teachers, reward superior classroom performance, and empower school leaders in the personnel realm. The agenda is mostly about saving taxpayers' money, curbing the privileged status of public employees in general, and reining in the practice of collective bargaining in the one large domain of the American economy where it still flourishes, namely the public sector. Teacher unions, some of the staunchest and most numerous supporters of Democratic office-seekers, would be among the groups hit hardest.

Faced with such a choice, what's a reform-minded Democrat to do? Most are trying to split the difference, insisting on the long-sought education reforms, acknowledging that the unions are obstacles, and agreeing that ?some changes need to be made? in the bargaining process (as well as give-backs squeezed from current contracts) without giving up on unionism and collective bargaining themselves. The argument is generally: Unionism is not to blame, the unions themselves are.

There will surely be some places where that sort of ?middle course? ends up being steered, where reins are applied but gently enough that the horse doesn't wind up with no teeth left. And that's not necessarily a bad outcome.

But it's not a great one, either, not from the standpoint of school kids, taxpayers, and American competitiveness. At least so long as the current structures and governance arrangements of American public education endure, the average local teacher union is apt to prevail over the average local school board. The union has many more assets, including a large (often captive) membership, a discretionary (and rather secret) treasury, the ability to bring in heavyweights from the state and national offices, the threat of striking, all those statutory job protections, and leaders who don't have other day jobs (as most school board members do) and can thus work on their agendas 24/7. What's more, in many places, the union also exercises great influence over who gets elected to the school board. (The dynamic is very different for cops and firefighters?who negotiate with mayors and county executives rather than boards that they largely control.)

Given this fundamental power imbalance, Republicans are not wrong to go after collective bargaining itself?and to use both the budget crisis and their current political ascendancy to limit it to a few key issues, if not abolish it altogether. And reform-minded Democrats may be kidding themselves to believe that they can preserve collective bargaining while still pushing forward the reforms they know to be necessary.

As one veteran follower of teacher unions remarked this week, the battle lines are clear. Like it or not, reformers of every political persuasion will have to pick sides. May they choose wisely.

?Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This piece originally appeared in today's Education Gadfly. Sign up here to receive The Education Gadfly in your inbox every Thursday.

More By Author

Related Articles