In The News
WEAC needs to be sent to the principle’s office
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
February 9, 2011
If you sat down for a chat with President Obama you would probably find him unchanged in his belief, expressed in a 2007 article, that climate change is the “epochal man-made threat to the planet.” But you would search his 2010 State of the Union in vain for the term “climate change” or “global warming,” or even that dreaded phrase first proposed by Republicans (in the days when Reagan and the first Bush reflected that long-lost GOP flexibility) -- the concept of “cap and trade.”
The State of the Union is largely a political address that outlines what can be accomplished, not what should be, and the unyielding attitude in the Senate, and now in the House, forces the president to seek other roads than direct attack on global warming in the face of climate change deniers and doubters infecting the Congress.
If this tactical shift was statesmanlike, can the same be said of a speech February 8 by the state teachers’ union? It embraced the idea of merit pay for teachers and evaluation procedures that downplayed seniority and included student test scores. These are, to say the least, positions not associated with the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Are these traditional champions of better wages, benefits and respect for longtime workers abandoning principle in the face of political reality, as some suggest? Or is WEAC, Obama-like as the union claims, simply exploring conciliation in the face of the intractable anti-union majority in state government?.
Obama they ain’t. Not when you add in the other big suggestion from WEAC -- immediately rebuffed by such diverse stakeholders as MPS leaders, the local union (MTEA, a WEAC affiliate) and even Mayor Tom Barrett – to break the Milwaukee Public Schools up into smaller districts each with its own board structure.
That helps you understand the reaction of progressives and trade unionists who fear that WEAC, rather than standing by core concepts, was unseemly bending over to slobber the ring of the new Republican majority, a position that leaves them intellectually as well as physically vulnerable. (The WEAC president who announced the proposals, Mary Bell, just shares an alphabet relationship to Marty Beil, defiant head of the state AFSCME workers, who wants change to occur across the bargaining table, as is the workers’ rights under the law.)
But WEAC deserves more than the knee-jerk reception it’s received, particularly since the details are not the “about-face” painted in the media. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in particular, treated the proposal as a capitulation, but that newspaper has become notorious for excesses of its own. On education issue, it labels everything it likes as reform even when reactionary, and sometimes seems to embrace the vision that the nice lady who sits next to you at church can teach your first grader better than a devoted experienced professional.
It’s a weird pundit longing for the days of the little old country schoolmarm who worked for free among the bullies in the hopes of meeting the handsome cowboy. We all have that myth, but some of us are smart enough not to editorialize about it.
Truth is, as a bit of journalistic research would reveal, nationally both the NEA, which WEAC is a part of, and the AFT, another union of teachers, have been in discussion about merit pay and different evaluation systems -- admittedly slowly and somewhat under the gun. In fact, in Milwaukee the MTEA agreed months ago to such discussions, largely unreported in the media. So WEAC is actually in line with a national effort even while unions are simultaneously fighting off a lot of media inspired nonsense.
Yes there are veteran teaches who burn out (much like veteran welders, corporate executives and bankers for that matter), but the vast majority stick hard and learn more than the bright college students who do burn out in huge numbers after two years of teaching. Yes there are business people who can help run schools, but trained educational professionals are pretty darn good with budgets and even better don’t look for profits on the backs of the students. The media still feasts on the overstatements, which may also have impelled WEAC to broach the idea of merit pay.
There are, of course, two big problems with the idea. The biggest one in the context of teaching is no evidence, none really, that merit pay improves teachers. The other is: who decides who gets the bigger money? The school board official with the cousin who wants the job?
Despite these gigantic hurdles, the unions have faced the new order and suggested careful discussions should take place. WEAC actually offered a very limited idea, though you sure can blame it for changing ground after years of stubbornness. Now it says teachers who tackle hard-to-staff positions and additional responsibilities should receive extra compensation, as should teachers who earn national board certification (most already will earn more).
This is hardly an across the board embrace. In fact, if a union’s chief job is to protect the wages, safety and respect of its workers, even without evidence that merit pay works it’s a good idea for the rank and file. (Personally, I would prefer to first see facts that it will work, but then, I’m not a conservative.)
WEAC now says that seniority alone should not be the determinant (I think that is a big change for the union) but what it supports is a careful system of peer review combined with student test scores to determine advancement – clearly a big stick to throw underperformers out of the schools entirely.
Note that no laws need to be changed to do this and that elected officials and appointed local school boards play almost no part, and principals only a side role in the WEAC model. Note, too, that the weakest and most reactionary of the so-called reform ideas was not included – using student evaluations of teachers as a weight in keeping them employed.
Many educational specialists are not crazy about student test scores being a factor, since that can lead to teaching the test to keep your job. (The balance wheel is peer review.) But imagine a world where courts would take children away from parents who receive a negative evaluation from their kids. For every abusive parent that would be exposed, there would be a dozen good but tough parents who could lose their kids, especially when their kids realize they have that power. This in a nutshell is why using student evaluations have proven dangerous in judging if a teacher should keep a job. So that idea is being laughed out of most educational treatises and was not included in WEAC’s outline. Expect it to resurface in Republican counter-proposals.
WEAC’s change on the state level is only remarkable if you consider the rhetoric and postures of the past, and I do think the new political climate is responsible, including US Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s push for merit pay, again without evidence that this works, and less reliance on seniority, again without clarity on what else WILL work.
But WEAC looks vulnerable by only opening the door to discussion now, not so much on principle as necessity. It is clearly trying to reestablish itself as an important player in state politics in the face of a new majority likely to ignore its wishes. And this is a no-quarters environment given GOP recent behavior. (A jobs bill session with no single bill adding jobs?) This just isn’t the time for WEAC to play the frog to the GOP scorpion given the economic waters we are all paddling through.
Far more divisive was the MPS idea, particularly given that the state union is flying in the face of its local union, 8,000 or so in Milwaukee, and is particularly vulnerable to the charge that it has been absent from Milwaukee concerns. Too typically it spoke without advance consultation, from on high, as it were, from its Madison podium.
Its proposal also seems to be part of a curious attack on a new manager of MPS who has only been in office since July. Barrett once wanted to run the schools himself, but he rightly and quickly pointed out to WEAC that Supt. Gregory Thornton has been promised two years to turn things around.
The community may want to make that three years, given the savageness of the attacks on Thornton by the media and some elected officials, and now WEAC. Thornton has been hammered on every side as he attacked costs structures, worked with the unions to bring in business money, fought parents on failing schools and challenged the board’s speed in supporting his tactics.
As reward, the newspaper and bipartisan officials have inflated the number of empty MPS schools, suggested profit for taxpayers where there would be massive loss of revenue, ignored MPS’ record as the city’s finest and most cost-effective absentee landlord and dismissed MPS’ understandable concern about giving its empty buildings away for a buck to competitors. How Thornton has maintained humor and tact in the face of all this may well be the local lesson in statesmanship, though I will concede, as Barrett does, that it is too early to know if he can solve the bureaucratic nightmares. Intelligence and a steady hand may work, but the jury is still out.
Except for WEAC, which has piled on to the atmosphere of intemperate impatience. That simply exposes its own slowness to change, and raises questions about not just its core values but also its continued importance in state politics.