Have teacher unions nuked the fridge?

posted at 10:12 am on February 17, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

It started in New Jersey, where Chris Christie decided that the only way to real education reform was to challenge the powerful teachers union in the state, 200,000 members strong, and to do it loudly and boldly.   That effort has spread through several states, with the latest battleground erupting in Wisconsin, where teachers staged a wildcat strike with mainly unwitting students in their tow.  As Politico’s Jennifer Epstein reports, even Democrats have stopped defending tenure and other job protections demanded by teachers unions:

In Wisconsin, about 1,000 teachers called in sick Wednesday to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to strip their union bargaining rights.

In Washington, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recounted his battle with his state’s teachers unions Wednesday, calling their leaders “greedy” and “selfish.”

And in Nevada, Indiana and Florida, Republican governors are targeting teacher contracts and work rules to fix a system they say is broken. “The status quo has put us at the bottom of the heap,” Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval told POLITICO.

The events point to a convergence that is remaking the politics of education. Teachers unions, historically one of the most powerful interest groups in American politics, are being besieged like never before – under attack from conservative GOP governors with a zeal for budget-cutting even while taking fire from some Democrats, including President Barack Obama, who has suggested he agrees that unions can be an impediment to better schools. … On both sides of the aisle, politicians are unhappy with how teachers are compensated, hired and fired, and are eager to introduce reforms.

Teachers unions dropped $40 million on the midterm election, which Democrats desperately needed — and which did them almost no good in the end anyway.  The public has grown angry over decades of accelerated spending and federal interference in education with little to show for all of the resources sunk into it.  The government protects education as a near-monopoly, where only the wealthy can have actual, real choice in how their children are educated.  Union control of education has led to mediocrity rather than excellence, and sclerosis where there should be innovation.

Their tactics have grown threadbare as well, Patrick McIlheran argues in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.  In fact, if teachers had hoped to generate sympathy for their plight in Wisconsin, they should instead prepare for some significant backlash to their wildcat strike:

The public-sector union tantrums, meant to make lawmakers wobble, have an inadvertent message for the rest of us: Voters can vote all they want. We can elect a cheapskate governor and a Legislature to match. But come the moment, unions will have the last, loudest word.

They’ll have it if takes marches. They’ll have it if it takes what amounts to an illegal strike, with so many Madison teachers calling in sick Wednesday that the district closed schools. If it takes showing up for a we-know-where-your-family-is protest on Walker’s Wauwatosa lawn while he was at work, the unions are sure they can outshout any election result.

This is exactly why Walker is right to limit the unions’ power over government spending.

Furthermore, taking the kids out of classes to march with them underscores another significant concern of the public regarding education.  Most of the students marching with their teachers had no idea of the finer points of Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to bring teacher pension contributions in line with the private sector, a position the union called “slavery” just a couple of months before conceding the point.  Nor do they understand the budget gap that Walker faces, or the nuances of economic policy, tax burdens, and growth policies.  All they know is what their teachers told them — and that speaks to political indoctrination conducted in public schools by activist teachers, and the inability of parents and communities to weed out inappropriate politicking in classrooms.

Thirty years ago, the public saw teachers as underpaid and overworked professionals trying to prepare the next generation for leadership.  These days, the teachers unions are doing their best to present an image of arrogant entitlement combined with an inability to withstand scrutiny and accountability.  When that $40 million failed to rescue Democrats from their midterm debacle, it may well have been a nuke-the-fridge moment that brought a dawning realization of the political albatross that teachers unions have become.

Update: Kevin Binversie says the targeted schools in Wisconsin were not chosen by coincidence:

Beaver Dam and Watertown are direct shots at the Fitzgerald brothers — Jeff and Scott — who “just happen” to be the State Assembly Speaker and State Senate Majority Leader.

Meanwhile, Dodgeville, Richland, Sauk Prairie, and Mineral Point are in the 17th State Senate District; think that’s a message to State Senator Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center).

Can’t get any clearer that Racine United is a message to State Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine)

And, seriously, could they not hide Glendale / River Hills as a way to go after State Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee?

Kevin calls his list “interesting.”  I’d call it … instructional.


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