Midwest unrest: The view from the front line

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
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.

Ohio protest

   Photo by Eric Albrecht, Columbus Dispatch

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

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