Unions Facing Tough Outlook in State Capitals

By Sean Cavanagh — January 21, 2011 2 min read
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Earlier this week, I wrote about teachers’ unions facing legislation in state capitals that challenges them on all kinds of fronts. I would have liked to have included a couple of other voices and views in the story, but didn’t have space. So I’m offering up a few of them now.

One of them was John Stocks, the deputy executive director of the National Education Association. He voiced frustration about elected officials who in his view are attempting to depict teachers as anti-"reform,” when, in fact, his group merely wants to see more evidence to back up the strategies being put forward for changing how teachers are evaluated, paid, and promoted.

“It’s in our members’ interest to have the highest-quality people entering the profession,” said Stocks, a former state legislator in Idaho. “We’re willing to listen to new ideas that are research-based.”

The NEA is often accused of battling the kinds of changes to the teaching profession that advocates believe will lead to improvements. Several states are considering proposals to shake up how teachers should be evaluated, measures that have drawn bipartisan support. But Stocks says decisions about evaluating teachers should be made at the local level.

Citing their states’ financial woes, several governors and lawmakers are looking to cut state pension systems for teachers and other public employees, pointing to those plans’ high annual costs and long-term unfunded liabilities. But Stocks said that some elected officials are trying to manipulate the public by seizing on frustration over the financial collapse and recession in recent years, in an effort to cast teachers’ pension plans as overly generous. It’s a disingenuous argument, he says. Public workers had nothing to do with the financial collapse, he said, yet when state budgets face a crisis, it’s the pensions of teachers and other workers that get targeted. (The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, made a similiar case in my story.)

“The collapse of the economy was a result of large corporate interests on Wall Street taking high risk with banking and in the housing market,” said Stocks, who sees a lot of “misdirected anger” at unions and workers.

Mary Bell, the president of the the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a 98,000-member NEA affiliate, said her members are interested in working with elected officials of all political stripes. That includes her state’s new governor, Republican Scott Walker, who has spoken of giving school districts power to pay teachers for performance and to fire ineffective educators.

“When you want to reform the system and change how things work ... talking to the people who are actually doing that work is really important,” Bell said.

Teachers’ unions, at least in their campaign contributions, tend to overwhelmingly favor Democrats. Wisconsin is one of a majority of states were the GOP has taken control of governors’ offices, but Bell said her members are willing to sit down with Walker and other Republicans.

“It isn’t about party,” she said. “It’s about putting ideas forward about things that work. ... The best way to do that is to work with us.”

What’s your prediction: Is there room for negotiation and collaboration between unions and state lawmakers during this year’s legislative sessions? Or do you see only acrimony on the horizon?

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