When the nation’s governors gathered for their recent 2011 winter meeting, they found education issues at the forefront of the public debate—and not for reasons the state leaders would have hoped.
Protests by teachers’ unions have erupted in states across the country amid efforts to curtail bargaining rights and cope with the rising cost of workers’ benefits. At the same time, state governments face dire budget deficits that have forced some governors and lawmakers to propose freezing or making cuts to popular school programs and services.
Despite those glum conditions, attendees at the National Governors Association’s gathering on the last three days of February offered some positive news: They believe their economies are recovering, albeit slowly.
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, the Democrat who chairs the group, summed up the mood. She said she and other leaders are worried about the prospect of a federal government shutdown, and the coming evaporation of federal economic stimulus aid, which they fear could set them back.
“We’re fragile,” Gov. Gregoire said at a press conference held to open the meeting. “We are fragile. So anything Congress does, whether it’s a shutdown, or cuts that are going to directly impact the states, can be of considerable concern to us, because we do not need a hiccup in our recovery.”
The labor discord also cast a long shadow over the event. Teachers’ unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states have been forcefully—and publicly—protesting a range of moves by governors and lawmakers aimed at curbing their economic clout. (“Wis. Labor Bill Could Vex District-Union Relations,” March 9, 2011.)
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who spoke on a panel at the governors’ meeting, urged the state executives to try to find common ground with teachers’ unions. The secretary hosted a conference last month meant to highlight collaboration between unions and district administrators. (“Districts, Unions Seek to Improve Relations,” Feb. 23, 2011.)
“It’s all the more important in this [financial] environment” to reach agreements with unions, Mr. Duncan said in an interview. “In tough times, you need a different view of the world—you need a third way.”
Other attendees at the NGA meeting offered mixed opinions of the labor protests in Wisconsin, which have been echoed by demonstrations elsewhere, including Ohio and Indiana.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has tangled with unions in his state and is considered a rising star in the Republican Party, voiced admiration for fellow GOP Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin in his showdown with public-employee unions. But Gov. Christie discounted the idea that he would push for similar changes.
“Trying to analogize this to other states is really not at all constructive,” he told reporters. “I’ve got to do my thing, my way.”
While he did not seem interested in offering a plan similar to Walker’s, he said it wasn’t because he wanted to avoid controversy. “I’ve never been a wallflower. If I was interested in that, I would.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said his state has tried to work more cooperatively with teachers’ unions, despite labor’s objections to elements of the state’s winning proposal in the federal Race to the Top competition.
“You have to bring people together in the spirit of trust and progress toward shared goals,” he said. “And the goal of wiping out unions is not what inspires people to work harder.”
Mr. O’Malley noted that his administration is asking teachers’ unions to sacrifice through a proposal, like those being offered in many states, to have public workers pay more for benefits. He said he brings a basic argument to the negotiating table on benefits issues.
“I simply lay out the math, and what the actuaries are telling us,” he said, noting that not bringing down costs could affect the state’s bond rating.
‘No’ to Bankruptcy Talk
A number of governors at the meeting made a point of blasting the idea that Congress would let states declare bankruptcy, a move that might allow for the negation of costly pension contracts for teachers.
Gov. Gregoire and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, also a Democrat, told reporters that talk of such a move, which has buzzed around the nation’s capital in recent months, would roil financial markets and make it harder for states to borrow money for important projects. “Not only do we not want it, we want to stop the discussion,” Gov. Gregoire said. “We’d like the leaders of Congress to say, ‘It’s dead.’ ”
Added Gov. Malloy: “This is some of the most dangerous discussion that we’ve had in political terms in a long time. You’re threatening the entire municipal [bond] market.”
Pension contracts are difficult, if not impossible, to break legally. Some members of Congress apparently believe letting a state declare bankruptcy would create a way around that barrier.
Yet at NGA, opposition to a change in bankruptcy laws appeared to be bipartisan. Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah, a Republican, also spoke out against the idea at the meeting. In addition, the NGA and the National Conference of State Legislatures recently sent a letter to Congress opposing the bankruptcy option.
Mr. Malloy and other governors suggested that if states want to lower pension costs, they need go through the political process—presumably going through the legislature and negotiating with unions.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Governors Grapple With Education Issues as Labor, Budget Woes Command Attention