By Steve Gunn
MADISON, Wis. – Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall election Tuesday represented more than just one public official dodging a political bullet.
It provided a huge momentum boost for the education reform movement that’s been spreading like wildfire across the nation.
Wisconsin’s election results will serve as a green light for nervous governors and other lawmakers who have been pining to confront powerful teachers unions, but have hesitated out of fear of public retribution.
The verdict is in, and it couldn’t be more clear. Voters understand the need for strong leaders to take decisive action, particularly in tough times. They understand the need to rein in the power of the privileged few to improve education for the children of America.
The teachers unions can whine about the loss of their “collective bullying” rights. They can tell us that Walker’s victory is a defeat for the middle class. They can say education reform is nothing more than an effort to scapegoat teachers.
It’s all a bunch of hot air that was blown away yesterday by the power of the people. This is indeed what democracy should look like.
Voters told Walker that it was more than okay to reclaim public schools on behalf of students, parents and taxpayers. It was clearly the right thing to do.
And remember, these election results come from Wisconsin, the cradle of the American labor movement, where worker rights are deeply and permanently revered. If the citizens of the Dairy State will allow their leaders to rein in the power of out-of-control public sector unions, it can happen anywhere.
Public opinion supports that fact. A recent Harvard University polls shows that 51 percent of Americans now have a negative view of teachers unions, while only 22 percent approve of them. Even support among teachers dropped from 58 to 43 percent.
The people are clearly ready for change.
David slays Goliath
Walker’s story is a modern-day version of David and Goliath.
He was a largely unknown Milwaukee County executive who was only elected by a small majority in 2010. He was brought to power as part of a national conservative wave that put Republicans in control of statehouses across the nation.
Walker never had a popular mandate to challenge and tackle the public sector unions. But apparently he didn’t need one.
Within weeks of his inauguration, the new governor and his courageous allies in the Wisconsin legislature pushed through legislation curbing collective bargaining abuses.
The biggest and fattest target was the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, which had been dominating school budgets, and bleeding school districts dry, for the better part of the past 50 years.
Part of the problem was obviously financial. With their ever-increasing demands, aggressive tactics and friendly Democrats controlling the statehouse, local WEAC unions came to dominate public school budgets. In most districts, about 75 percent of the general fund budget was absorbed by skyrocketing labor costs.
In better times that went largely unnoticed. But when the recession hit and tax revenues slowed, school boards found themselves in an awkward predicament. They could either curtail labor costs, which required the permission of stubborn union leaders, or they could cut educational services to their students.
All too often, when school boards approached the unions for concessions, they were turned away. That meant layoffs for younger teachers, larger class sizes and cancellation of student programs.
Even worse, WEAC established its own insurance company (WEA Trust) and pressured school boards around the state to purchase its overpriced employee health coverage. Schools were spending far too much for insurance, and were limited in their ability to shop for better deals.
The other problem was structural. As in many states, teachers union collective bargaining agreements dictated the terms of instruction in every district, and protected senior teachers regardless of their effectiveness in the classroom. Seniority was more important than student learning, and the unions were not backing away from that stance.
The unions had the clout to protect their position at the top of the education establishment. That’s because state law mandated union membership for teachers, and allowed schools to be bullied into taking automatic union dues deductions from teacher paychecks.
The dues deductions were the life blood of the unions. With the guaranteed revenue, they were able to spend freely on campaign contributions to friendly political candidates. In turn, their pet representatives protected their domination over public education.
Voters embrace overdue changes
Walker’s Act 10 put an end to all the nonsense.
It limited collective bargaining to salaries, and limited salary increases to the rate of inflation. That allowed school boards to redirect their spending to meet student needs without union approval, and reject seniority as the main standard for personnel decisions.
It gave teachers the right to leave their unions, and forced the unions to have recertification votes every year. It gave school districts the right to shop the open markets for less expensive employee health insurance without union approval.
The law also halted mandatory dues deductions from teacher paychecks, although that change may be permanently struck down by the courts.
Perhaps the most useful provision forced public employees to pay 5.8 percent of their salaries toward pension costs and 12 percent of their health insurance premiums. While those percentages may seem small by private sector standards, they saved millions of dollars for school districts.
The unions reacted with an outcry of historic proportions. Teachers from throughout the state walked out on their students to join the protests at the state capitol in Madison. Sympathetic Democratic lawmakers fled the state to prevent a vote on Act 10. The unions filed lawsuits, tried to recall several Republican state senators, and tried to block the re-election of a conservative state Supreme Court justice.
All of those efforts failed.
Then the unions played their trump card, gathering nearly a million signatures to force the gubernatorial recall election. For a while they seemed to have the public on their side. Polls indicated Walker might be the lamest of lame ducks.
But then Act 10 started to work. Suddenly schools were able to balance their budgets and prioritize the needs of students without union interference. They were able to make personnel assignments without worrying about seniority. Teacher layoffs were largely a thing of the past. Severe budget cutting became largely unnecessary.
Citizens began to understand the value of Act 10. They started grasping the importance of putting the public interest before special interests.
First the people rejected the handpicked WEAC candidate in the recent Democratic gubernatorial primary. And when recall election day finally rolled around, they returned Walker to office with a huge vote of confidence.
Today that vote of confidence is reverberating throughout the nation. It’s telling brave mayors like Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and Michael Bloomberg in New York to maintain their efforts to face down the unions and improve education in their cities. It’s telling governors in states like New Jersey, Tennessee and Florida that they can keep pressing for reform without fear of political retribution.
The unions have lost their influence, now that the public better understands the self-serving nature of their agendas. And the reformers have all the momentum they need to return control of public schools to the taxpayers that fund them.
Call it the “Scott Walker revolution,” if you like. He clearly deserves that honor.