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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The (occasionally) mighty teachers union

by folkbum

One of the most regular complaints leveled against the Milwaukee Public Schools is that its elected board is nothing but a bunch of union tools doing the bidding of the union, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA). For those of you keeping score at home, a dose of reality: After the new board is sworn in, there will be two--just two-- of nine members supported by MTEA in their elections, Peter Blewett and Terry Falk. (This is down from four of nine for the past four years.) Keep those numbers in mind before you levy that complaint again.

On the other hand, Tony Evers cruised to election last night, defeating Rose Fernandez by more than 100,000 votes. (One blogger had bizarrely predicted that anything less than a 5% Evers win would be a Fernandez "upset." Way to pre-spin for your candidate: Even if she loses, she wins an upset! Yeesh. And she wasn't that close.) Many will (and by now, have) attribute this victory to the "special interest" of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC).

Indeed, WEAC spent heavily in this race which directly affects its members, much like others with a direct interest--ties to the for-profit, out-of-state companies set to benefit from a greater degree of privatization of K-12 schooling under Fernandez--also invested in the race. It shouldn't surprise anyone, and it won't surprise anyone when WEAC claims a victory. But what is surprising--maybe not surprising; let's say befuddling--is the continued demonization of WEAC among the conservatives.

After all, who is WEAC? It is Wisconsin residents who do one of the most important jobs in the state--teach our children. A commenter on a previous thread elaborates the complaint:
Their goal is to protect teachers' jobs, teachers' salaries and teachers' gold plated benefits packages. Nothing wrong with that, but you want people to think that getting those things for you and your fellow members equates to top of the line schools for our kids.
There are several problems with that argument, the most notable being that if we treat teachers like burger-flippers and cut their compensation, it becomes that much harder to attract the best and the brightest to the profession. (True story: I asked a talented student of mine last week why she didn't want to be a teacher. The answer: Teachers don't get paid enough to put up with the crap you do. She didn't use the word crap.) The argument also does a disservice to WEAC's actual, fairly broad lobbying efforts, which spans much more than salary and benefits and includes support for a lot of things that will make our students' lives better, as well.

One place where I have disagreed strongly with my union is on the issue of campaign finance reform. I want the kind of spending WEAC (and other groups) did out of state politics. However, it galls me that WEAC has been and probably will continue to be labeled a "special interest." Wisconsin residents looking out for themselves and the families we teach are not the same as for-profit enterprises that value taxpayers and children less than the dollars they can score for shareholders. If you can't see that, well, I don't know what to tell you.

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