Duncan Talks Scott Walker, Collective Bargaining

By Sean Cavanagh — March 04, 2011 2 min read
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Arne Duncan, speaking with reporters yesterday, offered a few more thoughts on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial bid to strip teachers of many of their collective bargaining rights.

The secretary of education reiterated his concerns about Walker’s proposal, and offered a few more details on a phone call he had with the Republican governor recently, in which Duncan evidently tried to convince him to work cooperatively with teachers’ unions.

Duncan, as he has previously, noted the state’s largest teachers’ union had released a far-reaching proposal—before the governor unveiled his own plan—for merit pay and making it easier to remove ineffective teachers, among other steps.

The secretary praised the union’s proposal, citing it as evidence of teachers’ willingness to embrace new ideas and negotiate.

“What I just expressed to him is that when unions are willing to move outside their comfort zone and drive reform, it was disappointing for me to see those efforts...squashed rather than rewarded,” Duncan said. “We have to reward courage, not beat it down.”

During his call with reporters, Duncan also pointedly noted that he and Walker had made an appearance on a radio show together, mere days before the governor unveiled his controversial collective bargaining proposal, in which the governor had joined the secretary in praising the union’s proposal.

“It’s significant, and obviously I’m very pleased,” Walker said on the show, when asked about the teachers’ union proposal. “We should be able to reward teachers who excel, and there are many, many, many teachers across the state who excel, and also help mentor those who maybe need a step up or two, and ultimately for those who aren’t able to get to that level of excellence, maybe find another person willing to step in.”

Walker has argued that his proposal will save taxpayers money, not just by requiring teachers to pay more for pensions and health, but by changing collective-bargaining rights. Union officials dispute that. Duncan, in his phone call with reporters, seemed to be saying, well, it depends.

Raising class sizes from, say, 23 students to 28 students (a move that could be blocked by collective bargaining agreements) can save money, Duncan agreed. You could pay the teachers of those classes more, and most parents would like the arrangement, as long as they knew the teacher was competent, the secretary said, echoing an argument he’s made before.

But it’s not just about the bucks, Duncan said. Changes to collective bargaining, if made in collaboration with unions, can boost student achievement, he argued.

“We’re seeing tremendous courage and leadership around the country,” Duncan said. “What I can’t support is when those collective bargaining rights are stripped.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.