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; 9:36 AM

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.

Various GOP proposals to narrow labor rights, dismantle teacher tenure and channel public money toward private schools raise a question: Should states work with teacher unions to overhaul education or try to roll over them?

Like many Democrats, President Obama wants collaboration. He has preached teamwork with unions even as he pushes harder than any of his predecessors to get bad teachers out of schools and pay more to those who excel.

Here in Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) shares many of Obama's education goals. But Daniels, a possible 2012 presidential contender, and several of his Republican peers are pursuing reform through confrontation.

The consequences could ripple far beyond their statehouses, polarizing what has been until now a largely bipartisan movement to fix education and perhaps complicating efforts in a divided Congress to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law. Analysts say teachers might grow leery of signing onto a school improvement agenda if they believe it will quash their rights.

"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."

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 capitol. 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.

"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."

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.

Here, Daniels is seeking to capitalize on the Republican rout in last fall's elections to enact a sweeping education package that melds many of Obama's fix-it ideas with a few of his own. The governor dismisses union criticism that he is anti-teacher.

"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."

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