By Ben Velderman
MUSKEGON, Mich. – Two years ago, the nation’s teacher unions appeared beaten and politically dead.
A large group of reform-minded governors and state legislators had swept into office and promptly passed historic education reforms that created strict accountability standards for educators and school choice options for families.
It’s apparent now that the teacher unions weren’t dead, they were merely wounded. The unions came roaring back in yesterday’s elections, winning huge victories in several states.
In Idaho and South Dakota, the unions were able to roll back K-12 reforms and re-establish the teacher unions’ control over public education in those states.
In California, the teacher unions helped pass Gov. Jerry Brown’s $6 billion tax increase that will prevent drastic cuts to the state’s public schools, and will spare unions from having to make contract concessions to help keep their school districts afloat.
The California Teachers Association is also celebrating the defeat of Prop 32, which would have prevented unions from using member dues to wage political campaigns.
And Michigan’s teacher unions in bankrupt school districts no longer have to fear seeing their financially irresponsible labor contracts being voided by a state-appointed “emergency financial manager.”
Still, there were a few bright spots for education reformers in yesterday’s elections.
Charter schools are headed to Washington state for the first time ever. Voters finally approved them after three previous defeats that were prompted by union opposition. In Georgia, voters passed a measure that will allow proposed charter schools that are blocked from opening by local school boards to gain alternative approval from a state agency.
Voters in Arizona and South Dakota rejected tax increases that would have raised each state’s sales tax by a 1 cent-per-dollar in order to increase K-12 funding. Teacher unions like such increases because the revenue inevitably ends up in the pockets of union members.
Michigan voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed collective bargaining privileges for public and private sector unions. The Michigan Education Association and its Big Labor allies were pushing the amendment in response to collective bargaining reforms in nearby Indiana and Wisconsin.
But despite those few exceptions, the nation’s teacher unions won big on Tuesday, and used the elections to reassert their control over public education and reestablish their prominence in America’s political landscape.
Historic reforms undone in Idaho, South Dakota
Last year, Idaho’s State Superintendent Tom Luna shepherded through a series of education reforms designed to transform public education in The Gem State. The “Students Come First” reforms put tight restrictions on collective bargaining privileges for teacher unions, phased-out teacher tenure, and linked teacher evaluations and pay to student performance.
The so-called “Luna laws” also eliminated seniority as a criteria for layoffs and expanded online class options for students.
But those reforms are in ashes today after the Idaho Education Association – with a huge assist from the National Education Association – convinced voters to repeal them by wide margins.
Dr. David Adler, Director of the Boise State University Andrus Center of Public Policy, described the voters’ decision as a “rebuke” of state Republican leaders (who passed the reforms) and noted that it will catch the attention of the 49 other states.
“I think this will be closely watched. You can imagine that networks will want to probe this to try and determine what accounts for this rebuke to the GOP leadership,” Adler told KTVB, adding that lawmakers must now sift through the ashes to find out what parts of the reforms “might be saved.”
Likewise, South Dakota voters rejected Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s K-12 reforms that “would have given bonuses to top teachers, phased out tenure and recruited candidates for critical teaching jobs,” reports RapidCityJournal.com.
Daugaard’s merit pay plan was the most ambitious of its kind in the nation, and “would have given annual $5,000 bonuses to the top 20 percent of teachers in each school district, and provided scholarships and bonuses to recruit teachers in critical fields,” the news site reports.
California’s union problem continues to grow
The union that had the best election night was the California Teachers Association.
The CTA helped pass Gov. Jerry Brown’s $6 billion tax hike plan (known as Prop. 30) which will “boost the sales tax by a quarter cent for four years and income taxes for people who make more than $250,000 a year would be raised for seven years,” reports the Associated Press.
The new tax revenue means California’s public schools won’t have to dramatically shorten the school year for students, as Brown had threatened to do through automatic K-12 cuts.
But the reality is that CTA members won’t be called upon to make the significant financial concessions that would help their bankrupt school districts stay afloat. If California schools had been forced to lop three weeks off the school year, public opinion may have boomeranged on the CTA and forced the union to offer significant givebacks.
That scenario no longer appears likely.
Meanwhile, the Michigan Education Association worked with its Big Labor allies to defeat Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature “emergency manager” reform law. The now extinct law allowed a state-appointed official to take over management of chronically troubled school districts – such as Detroit Public Schools – and void expensive teacher union contracts if necessary.
The law was a powerful incentive for school employee unions to offer modest financial concessions, instead of facing the risk of losing all of their contractual perks. That incentive is now gone, even though the financial problems facing Michigan’s schools are very much alive and well.
On Tuesday night, the American people were reminded of the power of the state and national teacher unions. Many of the most impressive education reforms from the last two years have been wiped out.
We fear that these results may discourage education reformers in other states from acting boldly. Considering all the advances reformers have made in recent years, that would be tragic.
Still, it’s undeniable that teacher unions still have serious political muscle and an emotional pull with American voters that defies understanding.