Midwest unrest: The view from the frontline

The Midwest is in turmoil over proposed changes to state laws that deal with collective-bargaining rights and pensions for public-sector employees, including teachers and other school personnel (as well as police officers, state employees, and more). Madison looks like Cairo, Indianapolis like Tunis, and Columbus like Bahrain, with thousands demonstrating, chanting slogans, and pressing their issues. (Fortunately, nobody has opened fire or dropped ???small bombs??? as in Tripoli.) Economics are driving this angst: How should these states deal with their wretched fiscal conditions and how should the pain be distributed?

To address these problems, Republican lawmakers and governors have proposed major changes to collective-bargaining laws and pension systems. In Ohio, Senate Bill 5 would continue to afford teachers the right to bargain collectively over wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. But the bill would also make profound alterations to the status quo, including: requiring all public-school employees to contribute at least 20 percent of the premiums for their health-insurance plan; removing from collective bargaining???and entrusting to management???such issues as class size and personnel placement; prohibiting continuing contracts and effectively abolishing tenure; removing seniority as the sole determinant for layoffs and requiring that teacher performance be the primary factor; and abolishing automatic step increases in salary.

Not surprisingly, these changes are being fiercely resisted by the Buckeye State's teachers, their unions, and their political allies. Battle lines are forming, and we at Fordham???as veteran advocates for ???smart cuts??? and ???stretching the school dollar??????have been drawn into the fray. In the past week, I testified at a legislative hearing on key education components of SB5, and joined a conversation in Dayton with Senator Peggy Lehner and a group of teachers and union leaders. On both occasions, large crowds of disgruntled protestors stood outside the meeting rooms, though most were respectful.

In those sessions and beyond, my colleagues and I have argued that changing state law to offer school districts more flexibility over personnel during times of funding cuts is critical for helping them maintain their academic performance. Further, this flexibility to make smart cuts is critical if our schools and students are to emerge out of this financial crisis stronger than ever.

And a crisis it is. The federal ???bail-out??? dollars that have cushioned Ohio and its school districts for the past two years will dry up by late 2011 and the state is required to balance its budget. Adding to the challenge, dollars for schools must compete with other valuable public programs. Though Ohio's K-12 enrollment has been all but flat for a decade, during that same period the number of Ohioans enrolled in Medicaid has leaped from 1.3 million to 2.1 million.

Something has to give. The state can either raise taxes or cut programs (or both), but Governor Kasich and the legislative majorities in both chambers were elected in November on the promise not to raise taxes. So cuts will be made and, as K-12 education eats up about 40 percent of the state's revenue, schools and school employees will bear a share of the pain.

Can this be done while protecting children and their learning? We know, for example, that relying on seniority-based layoffs to close fiscal gaps hurts pupil achievement. Last hired, first fired also hurts high-poverty schools, which typically have more junior teachers. Seniority-based reductions in force (RIF) will also trash some of the state's most innovative schools???like STEM schools???because they're new and staffed largely by younger teachers.

I made this case to the group of teachers in Dayton the other morning and they unanimously rejected it. They defended seniority on two fronts. First, they insist that district officials will axe their most expensive teachers first simply to save money. Second, they said, Ohio doesn't have a decent system for measuring teacher performance, and test scores???they insisted???don't prove much, and certainly not the caliber of a teacher's effectiveness.

Further, they kept asking, why the rush? Why all of the sudden is the state needing to make these changes? The teachers felt that GOP lawmakers are attacking them in retaliation for their unions' lack of support for Kasich in the last election. They seemed completely unaware of how thoroughly they (and other Buckeyes) had been left in the dark these past few years about Ohio's impending budget cliff???thanks to the federal stimulus dollars, some tricky accounting at the state level, and former Governor Strickland's celebration of his hocus-pocus school-funding scheme, which promised billions of non-existent new dollars for schools over the next decade.

Earlier this week, the self-same former governor emailed his supporters that ???thousands and thousands of Ohioans just like you have crowded the Statehouse because the livelihoods of Ohio's families are on the line. I was so inspired by these crowds that I decided to join them this past Thursday. There's just too much at stake to let Governor Kasich and the legislature roll back the clock on progress for Ohio's middle class.??? It's important to recall that not once during the three gubernatorial debates last autumn did Ted Strickland state that to balance Ohio's budget he would call for increased taxes. If that wasn't his intent, however, how did he expect to balance the budget other than by cutting???which is precisely what Republicans are proposing?

Teachers may be forgiven for feeling like all of this change has come out of nowhere because Ohio had zero leadership around the looming fiscal crisis before last month. The real debate in Ohio is just starting and there is no doubt that the current bills under consideration will be significantly amended or even put aside for alternatives. An air of suspense blankets the state until Kasich himself presents his budget by March 15.

Hinting at what's coming, the other evening he said, ???We are searching for a balance. Give our managers, our cities, our schools, and even our state the tools to control their costs.??? He added, ???Workers have been overpromised. This is not about attacking anybody. It is about fixing the state and making us competitive again.???

He's right. And it isn't just Ohio that he's right about.

???Terry Ryan

This piece originally appeared in today's Education Gadfly and in yesterday's Ohio Education Gadfly. Sign up here to receive The Education Gadfly in your inbox every Thursday, and here to receive the Ohio Education Gadfly in your inbox every other Wednesday.

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