A Wisconsin Moment For Our Education Policy Debate

Posted by on February 24, 2011

There is an obvious, albeit somewhat uncomfortable connection between what’s happening in Wisconsin and what’s been happening in education policy discussions.

A remarkably high proportion of the discussion is focused – implicitly or explicitly – on the presumed role of teachers’ unions. The public is told that our school systems are failing, and that teachers’ unions are at least partially to blame because they protect bad teachers and block “needed” reforms such as merit pay. In this storyline, unions are faceless villains that put the interests of adults above those of children.

Wisconsin represents a threat to this perspective in at least three important manners.

First, and most basically, it is illustrating the weakness of one of the most important concepts in our debate – the idea that one can support teachers, but hate their unions. To some degree, the distinction is plausible: Disagreeing with the organization that represents a given profession certainly does not imply animosity towards its members, and not all teachers agree with everything unions do (as is the case in any democratic organization).

But none of this changes the fact that unions are comprised of teachers, led by teacher-elected teachers at the local- and school-level, and virtually everything they do is approved by the vast majority of teachers. Every day in Wisconsin and around the nation, the world is seeing many tens of thousands of teachers and other public employees coming out in their capacity as union members or supporters. They are doing so voluntarily, and with energy and dedication to their cause. Each one of these faces should send a message to those of us in the education debate: Teachers’ unions oppose many reform ideas because, as survey data make clear, teachers oppose them. The attempt to set up unions as autonomous villains that exist independently of teachers depends on a dehumanized perception of labor organizations that does not square with reality.

Second, Wisconsin illustrates something we all know about, but don’t often discuss: The unusual alliances within the large group of “market-based reformers” that dominate our national education debate. I don’t know how it breaks down (and I’m generalizing here), but there is a portion of this group that opposes unions no matter what. According to these people, collective bargaining for teachers should be either illegal or curtailed to the point of meaninglessness, as it is for public employees in 19 states.

But not all opponents of teachers’ unions are anti-union. There is another large portion (many thoughtful) that generally supports labor and collective bargaining, but makes an exception for teachers’ unions. Teachers’ unions, they argue, are different – our children’s educations are at stake.

There is a fundamental tension between support for collective bargaining in general and unremitting hostility toward teachers’ unions. So many of the core policy ideas from this crowd – eliminating tenure and traditional salary schedules, imposing new teacher evaluation systems at the state level, mandating blanket increases in teachers’ share of contributions to health and pension benefits, etc. – are in many important respects assaults on the right of teachers to bargain their own compensation and working conditions.

It’s not about whether these policy changes under discussion are good ideas. Many of them, such as improved evaluations and alternative compensation systems, are perfectly reasonable (at least in my view). It’s about how these ideas are being implemented. In large part, they are happening in a decidedly top-down fashion, with minimal input from teachers and demonization of their unions, using a budget crisis to push things along – as in Wisconsin.

The protesters are only asking for a seat at the table – for a say in what happens to them and their workplaces. If you support that right generally, then making exceptions – determining what should and shouldn’t be subject to input from the people who know the most about what goes in classrooms – is both inconsistent and counterproductive.

Third and finally, the “blame unions” narrative seems to be receiving some disconcerting news as far as public opinion. For the past few years, the “market-based reform” viewpoint has maintained almost complete dominance over the public discourse. They have been incredibly skillful in promoting their agenda – on television, in newspapers, and even major motion pictures – and you have to search far and wide for a non-teacher public voice that speaks out for teachers’ unions. Yet, we learned from Wisconsin that there is considerable public support for letting teachers and other public employees bargain their own compensation and other terms of their employment. More and more people are actually defending teachers’ unions publicly. Maybe – just maybe – when people see the workers and not the “faceless union,” they tend to come down on the side of workers.

This is important. The public reacts favorably to simplistic arguments like “fire bad teachers” or “reward excellence.” We all do. But it may not support eliminating the ability of teachers to have a say in how these slogans translate into actual policies. And that is the primary job of the thousands of local unions that represent teachers. They’re nowhere near perfect – because teachers aren’t perfect. But ignoring or villainizing them is a mistake.

The Wisconsin protesters want to talk this out, and so do teachers all over the nation. Scott Walker doesn’t seem to be listening. We should.


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