Last February—like Occupy Wall Street this fall—Madison, Wisconsn erupted into furious political struggle whose ripples were felt across the nation. Workers and activists from all walks of life gathered in the state capital, prepared to make their last stand. Underscoring the importance of the situation, Democratic state Senate Minority Leader Mark F. Miller told the protesters that they were fighting “to protect democracy.” In a way, and not one that he intended, Miller was right. “Freedom,” Ronald Reagan said, “is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Yet the next generation of the United States is currently wasting its great potential in failing American public schools. They are waiting not for superman but for elected officials to save them and their teachers from the suffocating grip of teachers unions.
After the passage of Governor Scott K. Walker’s controversial budget that ended collective bargaining rights for public workers, the state did not revert back to a 1950s state, before public unions (and, apparently, democracy) existed. Instead the remarkable happened—budgets were balanced. In the Kaukauna School District, the new law allowed school officials to transform a $400,000 deficit into a $1.5 million surplus without draconian cuts or even cuts to teachers’ salaries. Teachers now have to pay two percent more for their healthcare coverage and actually contribute to their pensions. Previously, the school district was required by the teachers union to buy health insurance from Wisconsin Education Association Trust, which just happened to be created by the teachers union. WEA Trust had previously significantly increased the cost of premiums, which held until, after the budget passed, when the premiums suddenly plummeted.
With its sudden surplus, the school district was able to reduce the size of all classes to 26 students in high schools and 23 in middle schools. More teachers and time can now be devoted to troubled students, and best of all, the district can hire new teachers, creating jobs.
The striking results of Governor Walker’s bill put the spotlight on where each side stands in the battle over America’s schools. Teachers unions and many of their Democratic allies believe that schools exist to provide jobs to teachers. As former American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker so simply stated, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” Republicans and school districts believe that schools exist to provide a quality education to their students.
A quality education is impossible to provide without excellent teachers, but teachers unions are against those, too. By insisting that teachers be granted tenure regardless of ability, unions create a system of “last in first out.” During difficult times and budget cuts, the newest teachers, regardless of their records of success, receive the pink slips. Without teachers unions, the best teachers stay, and the lemons receive the opportunity to find new, more suitable careers. Unions create barriers to entry and oppose alternative teacher certification programs. Despite its popularity and success, the National Education Association this summer decided to denounce Teach for America. Without unions, promising college graduates and mid-career professionals can devote their lives to helping students.
The public education system is failing, not because of a lack of effort but because of a lack of priorities. When unions are placed first, teachers, students and parents are placed last. Unions cost school districts millions of dollars in teachers’ pensions, healthcare, and union dues, and, in exchange for all of those valuable taxpayer dollars, ensure that millions of children are placed in dropout factories with failing teachers. It’s time to turn the tables on unions and grade teachers the same way they grade their students: by performance.
The status quo of American education is completely deficient in stewardship of students and respect for the dignity of workers, principles central to conservative thought but by no means exclusive to it. For every child to be guaranteed a decent education, liberals and conservatives must (and can) embrace the principles of school reform together. If America’s schools want to stop their fall in international rankings, government leaders must erode the power of unions through the end of collective bargaining rights if necessary. Unions have demonstrated they are willing to sacrifice the students and good teachers of this nation for the security of extravagant pensions and benefits. Democrats cheered last winter when Obama stated that he wanted to “win the future.” America’s future is waiting—in the classroom. They can’t wait to be given the chance to succeed.
Derek J. Bekebrede ’13 is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.