Wisconsin Postmortem: More on Teachers, Unions, and Where It's All Headed

Yesterday I shared some thoughts about the current and coming changes to public education labor relations and the teaching profession. And since Gov. Scott Walker did indeed pull out a convincing win last night in Wisconsin, interest in the topic remains strong.

State Budget Solutions has put together a great brief highlighting why current government collective bargaining models need to be reformed, something that mirrors what my Education Policy Center friends produced last year as a guide for local changes in Colorado. All this raises the need for a few more important points to be addressed:

First, yesterday’s posting generated a response from someone concerned that what I had to say was “ill-informed” and “ill-advised,” particularly about the issue of “unaccountable tax-funded release time for union officers and activities.” I should have linked to this 2010 issue paper in the original post to document my point, one of several key indicators why changes in norms should be forthcoming.

The commenter also expressed concerns about making sure that teacher voices would be represented and respected. My response noted that the “monopoly model of bargaining” certainly isn’t necessary to ensure that happens. Other models are available that could be effective. But even if you’re convinced that bargaining is essential (don’t tell Colorado’s 137 non-unionized school districts), why don’t teachers today even have the option of supporting a local-only union option? An example of larger union political clout not doing favors to educators.

Still, the source of concern is neither irrational nor completely unfounded as much as it reflects a lack of awareness of what could be. And this recent published study strongly indicates that, at least on the surface, there remain some significant differences about education policy issues between the majority of teachers and the majority of parents and taxpayers.

But some of the same researchers– Paul Peterson and Martin West, in particular — also yesterday highlighted for the Wall Street Journal the very real decline in teachers union popularity, which follows their Tobacco Institute-like loss of credibility. Especially after last night, the loss of political power looks to be right behind. Commonsense Wisconsin-like reforms are likely to head to other states.

The main point I want to get across? Monopoly union bargaining power is not an all-or-nothing issue for teachers, even less so for student learning itself. Change isn’t easy. But the promise of more innovative and productive practices in K-12 education looms ahead.