Last night’s move by Republicans in Wisconsin’s state senate to pass the proposed abolishing of collective bargaining can easily be called a procedural masterstroke. Despite the lack of Democrat votes in the upper house (since they fled town to avoid letting the bill pass), state senate Republicans essentially stripped out the appropriations portions of the bill, then passed the law on an 18-to-1 vote.
Whether or not the move was a short- or long-term victory for the state’s governor, Scott Walker, is one question on which Mickey Kaus and other political watchers can speculate. But for the nation’s school reform movement — especially centrist Democrats who have cringed at the logical conclusion of their own open warfare against the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — the battle in the Badger State offers a glimpse into the pitched battles over the long-term overhaul of teachers compensation to come.
For all the attempts at accommodation made by AFT President Randi Weingarten over the past year, the reality is that both unions will refuse to give up much real ground. Given the presence of the AFT in the nation’s big cities — the leading laboratories for school reform — the union has no choice but to attempt some sort of triangulation. As seen in Wisconsin, the NEA will do no such thing. The moves the union has made in the past few weeks — including the protests in Wisconsin’s statehouse and starting a fund through its foundation to finance efforts to stop bans on collective bargaining — are clear signs that the union will rely on its arsenal of campaign cash and rank-and-file members to beat back any other attempts at weakening influence.
But both unions realize that abolishing collective bargaining (along with ending mandatory dues payments by teachers who don’t want to join unions) is just the beginning. As more states wrangle with the $1.4 trillion in pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs, ending defined-benefit pensions will become part of the discussion (demanding teachers to pay more already has). One possibility not yet discussed is the matter of converting traditional pensions into cash-balance plans, a technique already used in the private sector firms to cut down long-term pension costs. Depending on the legal issues involved, this could be something states consider doing in the next few years.
Then there is the matter of seniority- and degree-based pay, which forces districts and states to pay high-quality and low-quality teachers equally, doesn’t reward young talented teachers for good-to-great work in their early career period, and is ineffective at rewarding talented teachers and spurring student achievement. While performance pay could help states reward teachers in more meaningful ways, the current approach of ladling dollars on top of the existing compensation system doesn’t work; this is because, like similar efforts to reward public universities, the performance dollars are simply added on top of a pay structure that is still too comfortably status quo. States will have to take a scalpel to the entire pay system in order to get the right results.
So the NEA and AFT will not simply cave on these matters. Nor are they just going to give up the rest of traditional teacher compensation — including near-lifetime employment through tenure, seniority rights in teacher assignments, and protections from layoffs. The moves made by both unions are harbingers of what will happen by 2012, when statehouses come up for bid and President Barack Obama attempts a tough re-election campaign. The unions will count on Democrats — especially school reformers among the activists — to back collective bargaining rules and quiet down on their own reform initiatives.
This will be interesting. Up till now, the bipartisan coalition that has made up the nation’s school reform movement have managed to largely keep up a united front (even as they are divided on political, traditional ideological and formulas for reform grounds). But the battles in Wisconsin, along with those in Ohio, Indiana and Idaho, will be a test of whether the camps can keep together in order to actually win the reform battles that are coming.
At the same time, Wisconsin is also another reminder that reformers need a stronger ground game and communications infrastructure. Teachers unions already have the advantage in the first; there are enough skeptics of school reform among the John Stewarts of the world to overcome the gains that made in the last year with the help of the John Legends and Davis Guggenheims. More importantly, The Daily Show is on every night except weekends. Time to get to fundraising and getting some media people back in the game on the reform side.