Gov. Scott Walker can thank Michelle Rhee for making teachers unions the enemy

Richard D. Kahlenberg
Sunday, February 27, 2011

Education writer explains how the former D.C. schools chief helped stoke anti-union fires

A half-century ago, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to pass legislation allowing collective bargaining for public employees, including educators. At the time, teachers across the country, who make up a significant share of public employees, were often underpaid and mistreated by autocratic administrators. In the fight for greater dignity, union leaders such as Albert Shanker in New York City linked teacher unionization to the fledgling civil rights movement.

Today, Wisconsin is again at the forefront of a union battle - this time in Republican Gov. Scott Walker's effort to cut his state's budget deficit in part by curtailing collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees. How did it become okay, once more, to vilify public-sector workers, especially the ones who are educating and caring for our children?

On the most obvious level, teachers unions are taking a pounding because Republicans have gained power in recent state elections, and the GOP has a strong partisan interest in undermining public-employee unions, which provide troops and treasure to the Democratic Party. In Wisconsin, Walker's campaign to restrict the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other groups to the issue of wages is transparently partisan. Exempt from his plan are two unions that supported him politically: those representing police and firefighters.

But Walker's argument - that greedy teachers are putting their own interests over the interests of the public - resonates in part because in recent years, many Democrats have made that argument as well.

Exhibit A is former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Under Democratic mayor Adrian Fenty, she repeatedly clashed with the Washington Teachers' Union, which she said put the interests of adults over those of children. "Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated," Rhee said at the Aspen Institute's education summit in 2008. She told journalist John Merrow it is imperative that teachers-union bargaining rights exclude issues such as devising a fair teacher-evaluation system.

Since resigning as chancellor last year, Rhee has launched a new organization, StudentsFirst, with the express goal of raising $1 billion to counter teachers unions. Her approach remains confrontational. In a profound sense, Democrats like Michelle Rhee have paved the way for Scott Walker.

But Rhee couldn't have done it alone. Then-candidate Barack Obama endorsed Rhee in a 2008 debate as a "wonderful new superintendent" and later applauded the firing of every single unionized teacher at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. (The teachers were later rehired.) Rhee's agenda also received a big boost from liberal movie director Davis Guggenheim, whose film, "Waiting for 'Superman,' " implies that teachers unions are to blame for the failures of urban education and that non-unionized charter schools are the solution. The movie includes no acknowledgment that the things teachers want for themselves - more resources devoted to education, smaller class sizes, policies that allow them to keep order in the classroom - are also good for kids.

Today, Obama has appropriately labeled Walker's proposal an "assault on unions." And to its credit, the U.S. Education Department recently held a conference in Denver highlighting progressive agreements between unions and management in cities such as Baltimore and New Haven, Conn. But overall, one official told me, teachers unions feel unfairly criticized by the president.

Of course, some teachers unions brought this on themselves. Too often, union leaders protect incompetent teachers and make it difficult to pay outstanding educators more. But the bipartisan attack on unions as a central impediment to improved education is off the mark. America's largely non-unionized education sectors - charter schools and schools in the South - are hardly shining examples of success.

The debate in Wisconsin could give teachers unions a fresh chance. A USA Today-Gallup poll finds that, by 61 to 33 percent, Americans oppose ending collective bargaining for public employees. Teachers should use this moment to articulate a powerful reform agenda. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has made a good start by suggesting that all educational issues should be on the table (with the exception of private-school vouchers). The AFT has also endorsed a promising way to get rid of bad teachers: peer-review programs in which excellent teachers work with struggling ones to improve performance, but in many instances end up recommending termination of employment. Some school districts use similar systems. Under these programs, teacher firings have increased, but in a way that many teachers accept as fair. On Thursday, Weingarten further proposed accelerating the timetable for teacher terminations.

Wisconsin and many other states are facing dire budget crises, and unions need to be smart about advocating strategies that keep fiscal concerns in mind. That means moving beyond traditional efforts to pour more money into high-poverty schools. Magnet schools, which give low-income students a chance to be educated in a middle-class environment, are an especially promising investment. But this kind of engagement in education policy involves moving in a direction opposite of the one advocated by Rhee, Walker and others.

As the teachers union founder Al Shanker noted years ago, restricting bargaining to the issue of wages is a clever trap in which critics can suggest that teachers care only about money. Bargaining should be broadened, not constrained, to give teachers a voice on a range of important educational questions, from merit pay to curriculum. This could help improve the battered image of teachers unions. But, more important, it could help students.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of "Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy."

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