By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute
It was interesting to read the op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC). In Bell’s world, the state’s teachers unions are a benevolent force for education in Wisconsin.
Maybe that is the view from the WEAC office building on Nob Hill outside Madison. Parents, advocates for reform in education, and even a few teachers might have a little less sanguine view of the supposed benefits of the teachers unions.
Mary Bell, WEAC
We should be grateful to Bell for at least differentiating between the role of the teacher and the union. “As educators, we are determined to help every student succeed. As a union, we are determined to help every educator – and our schools – succeed.”
We’re just not sure in what the union wants the teachers and school districts to succeed. If it’s in educating children, the union has done it’s best to fight any needed education reforms that would allow teachers and schools to succeed.
For example, Bell mentions the union’s participation in DPI Superintendent Tony Evers’ Educator Effectiveness Design Team. But Bell and WEAC opposed efforts to allow student achievement to be a factor in evaluating teachers. WEAC’s opposition was one of the reasons why Wisconsin’s application for federal Race to the Top education funding was rejected.
It was a clear case of WEAC choosing union membership privilege of seniority and union protections over having the most effective teachers in the classroom, even if that meant denying Wisconsin schools federal funds that could have meant more funding for teacher positions.
Bell and WEAC also rejected an opportunity to join Evers and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in a task force to come up with a way of evaluating the effectiveness of schools as a substitute for the method used under the federal No Child Left Behind law. WEAC chose politics, in this case personal politics when it came to Walker, over improving the state’s schools.
That’s not surprising when you consider WEAC’s reaction to any substantive education reform. Take for example the union’s opposition to Wisconsin’s online public charter schools, commonly referred to as “virtual schools.” Public school teachers that are actually part of the union teach classes in these schools online. WEAC opposed allowing the charter schools to educate students outside their districts and actually went to court to stop it.
It took an act of the legislature keep the schools open after the lawsuit, and then only after WEAC ally Governor Jim Doyle insisted on a cap on enrollment. Until the cap was lifted recently by the legislature, many parents attempting to take advantage of this educational alternative would find their children put on waiting lists with their educational futures unknown.
Bell claims WEAC, “has been a voice alongside superintendents, school boards, parents and other concerned citizens to shine the light on the need for a better way to fund our schools.”
Notice what Bell did not say. She did not say that their “better way” was always, always, always to ask for more money from the state’s overburdened taxpayers. Bell also didn’t mention how WEAC opposed the limits created by former Governor Tommy Thompson that were placed on school districts in the areas of taxing and teacher compensation to keep property taxes in state from skyrocketing further.
Nor does Bell mention ACT 10, passed by the Republican legislature and signed into law by Governor Scott Walker. Already ACT 10 has allowed school districts across the state to save millions in teachers’ benefits costs. With the recent state budget imposing revenue caps on school districts, taxpayers across the state are seeing the benefits of the savings while school districts are benefiting from the ACT 10 savings offsetting cuts in state aid.
WEAC may have been opposed, but school districts are meeting the needs of students. The only districts where ACT 10 has not been a benefit are those where the school boards foolishly signed agreements with the teachers unions extending the unions’ collective bargaining privileges regarding benefits.
As we have seen, teachers unions’ intransigence has not only hurt the school districts, but the union members themselves. In Milwaukee, the union voted to allow the layoffs of over 500 MPS employees, including 354 teachers. In Kenosha, the union decided they would rather see 338 teachers laid off by the district rather than make any concessions like those in ACT 10.
No wonder WEAC was willing to lay off 40% of its staff. Ironically, WEAC’s treatment of its staff led to Bell’s union getting accused of using underhanded anti-union tactics by Chuck Agerstrand, president of the National Support Organization. Agerstrand should look at how the teachers are treated by WEAC, as expendable pawns.
We can all agree with one of Bell’s statements, “Our state is better when we work together, respecting diverse perspectives focused on a common goal to keep public schools strong for generations to come.” The problem is, we’ve been waiting a long time for WEAC to join the team, and that wait has been in vain.
Thankfully, the time has arrived for WEAC to get out of the way.