Midwest unrest: The view from Washington

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Click to listen to commentary on the unrest in the Midwest from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

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
to “reach
out” to union leaders
with encouraging
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-à-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.

Like it or not, reformers of every political persuasion will have to pick sides.


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

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
. 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

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.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute