Midwest union battles highlight debate over improving schools

By Nick Anderson
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."

Last month the Indiana Senate passed a bill to connect teacher evaluations with test scores, launch teacher performance pay and make it easier to dismiss teachers repeatedly rated ineffective or in need of improvement.

Other Daniels-backed bills would expand public charter schools, 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 a staff meeting or who can monitor students at recess.

On tenure, Daniels has a nuanced stance. He has said that "teachers should have tenure," but only if they earn it through proven ability.

In elementary and secondary education, tenure generally refers to the due-process protections teachers are given after a probation of two to three years. In practice, that means tenured teachers are entitled to appeals and hearings before dismissal. But tenure is no job guarantee. The American Federation of Teachers has proposed steps to modify tenure policies - expediting what can be a glacial timeline for firings - but only in tandem with other changes to help struggling teachers improve.

It is unclear how long Indiana's House Democrats can stave off the Republican bills. Most 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.

Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan (D), who teamed with Republicans on the charter school bill, said she could envision backing some other GOP education bills if amended. But she called the voucher proposal an overreach.

"I'm not happy that some of the reforms are getting dragged into this brawl," Sullivan said Wednesday. "It's a shame."

The statehouse battle perplexes teachers at Shortridge High School, alma mater of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and the late author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. The theme of the 600-student magnet school is law and public policy.

Alene Smith, 48, a social studies teacher and union representative, said veteran teachers must be shielded from arbitrary firings. She said it would be "a little frightening" if union rights are stripped. "I'm old. I'm expensive. You could hire two people out of college for what you pay me."

But Republicans say union leaders are not representing all teachers.

"There is a tremendous difference in desire for reform between teachers and the teachers unions," said Tony Bennett, the superintendent of public instruction. "Teachers want what's best for children. The teachers union is an institution built to protect the interests of itself and adults."

Labor leaders dismiss such criticism, pointing to rallies here and across the state as evidence of the zeal of their members to support public education.

Nathan G. Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, is seeking to preserve influence following the Republican takeover of the Indiana House. He said teachers face painful choices: They can refuse to negotiate on the GOP package - and lose big. Or they can shave their losses by pushing a few pragmatic Republicans to amend the bills.

"I have to live in the reality of the moment," he said from his office overlooking the statehouse. "I've counted the votes."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company