Wisconsin, teachers, unions, and the budget

Lots of semi-interesting things going on up there in Wisconsin these days … that is with part of their legislature spending some time in Chicago.

I have, I think, a fairly different view on things being that I do teach in a public school, but I am not a union member.  I think its hypocritical on my part to be a part of an organization and take its protection while knowing I would not walk out on kids over a salary or benefits issue.  I don’t judge others on their choice to join a union, and support the idea that a worker has the right to choose to join a union.

So it is from that perspective that I look at Wisconsin.

1.  I fully agree that something needs to be done to get the budget of all the states (and cities and federal government) under control.  Part of that has to be tax raises.  Part of that has to be cuts.  It will not work under any other scenario.

That means, on the one hand, I support the general principle of what Wisconsin’s governor is doing.  Cuts need to be made to current retirees and future retirees need to pay more and expect less.  One of the things that is spreading incorrectly:  teacher pensions are not being fed by tax payer money except where the state failed to provide for its funding in the past.  That is, the money that is paid in by the districts (what people often think of as “tax payer money”) is in fact part of the teachers’ salary.  The districts pay it as a service to the teacher (rather than pay the teacher more money, and then having individual teachers send thousands and thousands of checks to the pension board).  Now, if the states have been poorly planning and not making adjsutments over the past few decades (like they all have, like the federal government has with social security), then they have had to shift parts of their budgets over to cover shortfalls.  That is not, per se, the fault of teachers or the unions, even though they will ultimately have to pay a great deal for what is happening.

On that note, if the governor is interested in cuts, I hope that he is making across the board cuts … like to senior citizens centers and to road construction and to reimbursing government workers, including the legislature, and the governor’s staff … this is not being covered in the media, so it is difficult to assertain if that is the case here.

2.  The governor wants to strip unions of their closed shop status.  This, of course, I favor.  My colleagues and I had a relatively civil conversation on this.  I was told that getting rid of a closed shop would lead to corruption.  I responded by saying that having a closed shop has already led to corruption, and that the corruption would simply shift.  If laws are in place to keep districts from going too far, then unions should be able to hold on to a modicum of power in order to protect the workers.  Nonetheless, a move like this in Illinois would save me roughly $650-per-year.  However, that, I admit, is a selfish motivation on my part.

On the other hand, even I have to ask: How does this somehow save the state money?  I can only conclude that this is some attempt by the governor to strip unions of their money (and hence power).  I think, however, that he highly overestimates the number of public school teachers who are not unionized.  I’ll be the first to admit that I am in a huge minority.  I think this is a union-busting move … and I am not sure how well it would work.

There is an even worse outcome to consider.  If a closed shop is done away with, normally quiet unions may start getting far more aggressive in terms of how they deal with non-members.  Most of my colleagues these days do not hold my union status over my head, though it is easy for them to not have to make a big deal out of it.  However, if the laws suddenly changed making any non-member a perceived threat, that good will could vanish quickly, and the climate for non-union workers could get chilly very quickly.

Our (my colleagues and I) current line of thinking is that these moves are going to have a deleterious effect on teaching and learning in Wisconsin, because it is based on a great many fallacies.  Young teachers who can move will be more likely to move.  Young teachers leaving the universities in Wisconsin and neighboring states will be more likely to try their fortunes elsewhere.  That will give Wisconsin schools slimmer picking of good teachers.  The same will be true for school administrators.  Those who can will move elsewhere.  Poorer ones or ones with a tendency to enjoy power trips will stay.  Wisconsin may end up saving some money (who knows how much, but I would bet dollars to donuts it isn’t going to come close to covering the amount they need), but it has the potential to cost them a lot more in the long run, if good education is worth something.

More and more I counsel students not to enter teaching as a profession because of the uncertainty that exists for its long term viability as an actual profession.  For people of my generation, it is difficult to remember that there was a time when teaching was either a part time profession, or a profession for married women who were permitted to work by their progressive husbands … or was a profession for nuns, single women, brothers, or priests.  I think teaching and learning in general has gotten much better since it became more of a true profession.  However, if salaries/benefits and (just as importantly) working conditions are going to be stripped back, then teaching is likely to become what it used to be:  a profession that you engage in until something better comes along … something that you do alongside another job (because chances are you would be released before you retire because you are too expensive to keep).  The idea of professional development as it exists now will be gone (another improvement of the last few decades), because more and more teachers will have to spend their free time working another job instead of getting training to be a better teacher.

This led to another discussion:  what is the real value of a teacher?  If a teacher makes $45k a year, is that a bargain?  Is $100k still a bargain?  I hear some seniors talk, and they talk about the great teacher they had that made $5k a year back in the 50s and 60s … an obvious apples and oranges comparison.  I find that this is a decision the public has to make … and over the last 10 years or so, the overall discussion seems to be one that teachers, and to some extent in some areas education, are not worth it.

I say that is a bad attitude … time will tell if that attitude will prevail.


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