Will Wisconsin’s teachers union actually help education, instead of siphoning its resources?

November 29, 2012

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Victor Skinner Victor Skinner

Victor is a communications specialist for EAG and joined in 2009. Previously, he was a newspaper journalist.
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By Steve Gunn
EAGnews.org

MADISON, Wis. – The Wisconsin Education Association Council – the statewide teachers union – is having a special representative assembly Dec. 1 to talk about the future.

Few on the outside know what’s on the agenda for the Madison powwow. To get details online one must have a WEAC user name and password. Union officials obviously aren’t ready to tip their hand to the media and general public.

But Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel penned a pretty good overview about the need for a special union tribunal, and what officials hope to accomplish.

Her analysis gives us hope that the union could be ready to turn a new leaf and pay more attention to academic issues. That would benefit the entire state.

Richards begins by noting how WEAC barely resembles the powerful political organization that existed before Gov. Scott Walker took office.

In the 2010 election cycle, the union’s political action committee spent $1.6 million to help friendly Democratic candidates win state office. This year, almost unbelievably, the WEAC PAC spent a mere $1,374 on friendly candidates.

The dollar figures are a telling sign of how radically times have changed.

“Traditional collective bargaining is now a thing of the past at most locals around the state; a third of WEAC’s membership is gone, its revenue is diminished and its staff is downsized,” Richards wrote.

Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy, called the union’s fall from power “striking.”

“Now they’re almost like spectators,” McCabe told Richards.

Everyone credits the currently suspended Act 10 for the union’s problems, and in many ways that’s true. The part of the law that made the most difference is the liberation it provided to teachers.

They are no longer chained to their union, and many obviously never wanted to be.

The mere fact that about one-third of WEAC members hit the road when the doors flew open said a lot. It demonstrated, once and for all, that the union only maintained its power and wealth through forced membership and compulsory dues.

That’s no way for any organization to function in the land of the free.

Could WEAC become a partner in reform?

Richards speculates that the union is looking for ways to make lemonade out of lemons. She thinks that could make the union less centralized and less political.

“The reality is, for the foreseeable future – two, four, six, eight years – the odds of us having success in the halls of the capitol are pretty limited,” WEAC Executive Director Dan Burkhalter was quoted as saying. “But we think that community by community, we can build support for traditional values and priorities.”

The new strategy could involve union members “becoming better advocates for different practices in teaching or for methods that recruit, train and retain high quality educators,” according to the article.

While we know better than to get our hopes up, that sounds sort of promising.

For years we’ve wondered why teachers unions, comprised of professional educators, didn’t take more interest in their field. For decades teachers unions have been obsessed with bargaining for hours, wages and working conditions for teachers, and have displayed little interest in the actual task of educating children.

“Unions actively reorienting themselves – even in states without Act 10-like legislation – are mobilizing teachers around curriculum and instruction issues,” Richards wrote. “That could mean organizing teachers to champion what’s worked best in the classroom by bringing new ideas to the school board, or working to get the community to support specific practices.”

That could be a practical and extremely helpful role for the union. Instead of spending all of their time trying to squeeze every possible dollar out of struggling school districts, members could work more collaboratively with administrators and offer positive solutions for ongoing problems.

Suddenly this political organization could be transformed into a useful professional association. The many great teachers on the front lines could become allies with administrators, instead of adversaries scowling across the collective bargaining table.

More local control over the union agenda could assist this trend. We’ve long suspected that many rank-and-file teachers across the state would have preferred a more relaxed relationship with school administrators, but were frequently blocked by WEAC big shots in Madison.

Top WEAC bosses are political animals, fixated on procuring vast amounts of money and using it to leverage union power in the state capitol. Their twisted agendas obscured the priorities of many individual teachers who are mainly concerned with doing their job well and helping children.

Teachers have a lot of knowledge to share, if they’re allowed to share it. They would make great partners in education reform, if they are allowed to participate.

Maybe, after next week’s representative assembly, WEAC will emerge with a new, strong and sustained interest in helping schools accomplish their mission.

What a welcome change that would be.

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