Midwest union battles highlight debate over improving schools

Teachers are protesting a number of education- and labor-related bills before the Indiana General Assembly.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 12:15 PM

INDIANAPOLIS - The Republican faceoff with labor unions in the Midwest and elsewhere marks not just a fight over money and collective bargaining, but also a test of wills over how to improve the nation's schools.

GOP governors are pushing to limit teacher bargaining rights, dismantle teacher tenure and channel public money toward private schools. All are direct challenges to the teachers unions and their mostly Democratic political allies in Congress and in statehouses across the nation.

This approach to school reform is far more confrontational than President Obama's and threatens to polarize what has been a largely bipartisan movement to overhaul education. Analysts say teachers might grow leery of signing onto a school improvement agenda if they believe it will trample their rights.

"This is big," Rick Muir, president of the Indiana Federation of Teachers, said of the Republican agenda. "It's not one item. It's not two. They've seized the opportunity to go on the attack. They're going for the jugular."

Here in Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), a possible 2012 presidential contender, and several of his Republican peers are pushing a bill to connect teacher evaluations with test scores, launch a system of performance-based pay and make it easier to dismiss teachers repeatedly rated ineffective or in need of improvement. Other Daniels-backed bills would offer publicly funded vouchers to help children of low to moderate means attend private school and narrow the scope of collective bargaining to wages and benefits.

The governor calls vouchers a matter of "simple justice" for families that lack options. He says teacher contracts too often hamstring administrators, setting rules for when principals can call staff meetings or who can monitor students at recess. And while he says that "teachers should have tenure," Daniels believes they should have to earn it through proven ability.

"I've been praising teachers and public education and trying to support it relentlessly for six years," the governor said. "It does no good. When you cross the union, you're the enemy."

For more than a week, Indiana's House of Representatives has been frozen by a Democratic walkout, echoing a standoff in the Wisconsin Senate. Pro-union demonstrations are popping up across the state and filling the Statehouse. One day, a guitarist sang the Woody Guthrie folk anthem "This Land is Your Land" to union backers inside the Statehouse while tea party activists ridiculed absent Democrats as "fleehadists" in a counter-demonstration on a sidewalk outside.

For decades, teacher unions have been a major force in education. In the District, as well as Maryland and other states where teachers have collective bargaining rights, unions can shape school reform through contract talks. In Virginia and other states where they do not have bargaining rights ¿ mostly in the South ¿ teachers unions push their cause through school boards and other channels. They also wield clout in local, state and federal elections, generally supporting Democrats.

But teachers unions are suddenly on the defensive across much of the nation. Debates over collective bargaining rights are flaring in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Idaho and Tennessee. GOP governors in New Jersey, Nevada and Florida have mounted a drumbeat against teacher tenure, opposing seniority-based job protections in much blunter terms than the president and most other Democrats.

"If you have someone who's proposing to do away with bargaining rights, a line has been drawn in the sand," said Richard W. Hurd, a labor relations expert at Cornell University. "In an environment like that it creates incredible tensions. Teachers are going to be very suspicious."

It is unclear how long Indiana's House Democrats can stave off the GOP bills. Most Democratic lawmakers fled the state Feb. 22 to deny Republicans a quorum required for action. There were signs of a thaw Wednesday as the House Democratic leader returned from Urbana, Ill., to talk with Republicans.

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