The Wisconsin Teachers' Crisis: Who's Really to Blame?

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Andy Manis / AP Photo

Democratic Wisconsin Assembly members cheer on the fourth day of large-scale protests at the state capitol in Madison on Feb. 18, 2011

On Tuesday, Feb. 15, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan convened hundreds of teachers'-union leaders and school-district leaders in Denver to discuss ways management and labor could work together better. Kumbaya!

Two days later, all hell broke loose in Madison, Wis. The flash point was Republican Governor Scott Walker's plan to address the state's budget gap by making public employees contribute more to health care coverage, coupled with a proposal to eliminate collective bargaining for most public employees — including teachers. Democratic state legislators went into hiding to thwart a vote on the measure, and schools closed as thousands of teachers left their classrooms to descend on the state capital.

The two episodes vividly illustrate the hope — and the reality — of labor-management issues in education today. As Madison becomes ground zero for the debate over government spending and public-sector reform, some hard questions are getting lost in political theatrics and overwrought rhetoric. Here are questions Wisconsin's governor, labor leaders and President Obama should have good answers for but so far don't:

1. Governor Walker: Can you make a case that you're not using the state's fiscal crisis in a cynical attempt to weaken organized labor?

2. Governor Walker: If collective bargaining is one of the biggest problems the public sector in your state faces in managing its workers, then why exempt first responders like police officers and firefighters from your proposals? Shouldn't you be addressing bargaining for police and firefighters even before other workers, like teachers, because of the critical role first responders play every day?

3. Governor Walker: You want to subject teacher pay raises to local referendums if they are higher than a cap indexed to the Consumer Price Index. Is it really a good idea to inject pay raises for civil servants into the political fray in this way?

4. Governor Walker: You want to mandate annual "decertification" votes for local unions so teachers could dissolve their union with an annual vote. Given that workers can decertify their union to represent them if they want, does setting an annual vote just introduce more instability and politics into local school districts?

5. President Obama: You're now rushing to defend the unions in Wisconsin, deploy resources there and say that people shouldn't vilify public-sector workers as a cause of our fiscal woes. Yet in December, you singled out civilian federal-government employees for a two-year pay freeze to show your seriousness about deficit reduction (even though the measure would save only $28 billion over five years, while the the federal budget is more than $3.5 trillion each year). Have you played any role in creating this anti-public-sector climate?

6. National and Wisconsin union leaders: We keep hearing how there isn't any difference between collective bargaining for steelworkers or autoworkers and bargaining for public-sector workers like teachers. Not exactly. While steelworkers can't pick the boards of directors for steel companies, teachers' unions have enormous influence in elections for school board members and state legislators. And while car and steel factories can go bankrupt — providing a real check on what kinds of demands labor can make — there is not the same constraint in the public sector, because while states can go broke, they can't go out of business. Given this, are any restraints on public-sector collective bargaining appropriate?

7. National union leaders: For more than a decade, teachers'-union leaders and activists have poisoned debate by attacking anyone raising serious questions about teachers' contracts as "anti-union." Now that we're seeing what actual anti-unionism looks like (in progressive touchstone Wisconsin, of all places) is this episode causing you to change your thinking about the urgency of reforming teacher contracts?

8. Wisconsin teachers'-union leaders: Is closing schools for days (especially in places like Milwaukee, where students can least afford it) so teachers can go to the state capital to protest really the best way to persuade the public that this is all about serving children?

9. National and Wisconsin union leaders: The assertion being made on the union side is that absent collective bargaining, Wisconsin public-sector workers would be left unprotected in the workplace. But wouldn't they, in fact, still be protected by a variety of federal and state statutes protecting workers from various discriminatory and unfair practices?

10. Wisconsin's Democratic legislators: Do you really think you're helping to solve this crisis by going into hiding?

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder of and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, usually appears every Thursday.