Teaching Profession Opinion

Lessons From Wisconsin

By Diane Ravitch — March 15, 2011 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Last week, I wrote from Madison, where I spoke about the historical context for the current corporate reform movement. When I agreed to speak at the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, I had no idea that I would arrive as the issues in that state reached a boiling point. Gov. Scott Walker said the state was broke; he made financial demands on the public-sector unions, and they capitulated to all of them. All that remained was his insistence on stripping public-sector unions of most of their collective-bargaining rights.

When I was there, the “Wisconsin 14” were still in hiding, and there were rumors that Gov. Walker might be willing to compromise. But I read in the Madison newspaper that Walker was well-known for his opposition to any compromise, and I didn’t see why anyone expected that he might drop his plans to destroy his political opponents.

We now know that he had no intention of compromising, that he wanted to lure at least one Democratic state senator back so he could push his “budget repair” bill through. And we know now that he took the financial issues out of the bill, making it possible for the Republicans in the Senate to pass the legislation without a quorum, eliminating most collective-bargaining rights for public-sector workers.

He expects that over time, most public workers will stop paying dues, especially now that they have to pay more for their healthcare and pension benefits. And thus will he cripple, perhaps permanently, a perennial political opponent.

If Gov. Walker succeeds, there will be no organized voice to oppose his “reform” plans. He can raise the income cap on vouchers, letting everyone leave the public schools if they choose. He can create hundreds of charter schools, opening the riches of that sector to any willing corporation. He can cut the education budget, increase class sizes (Arne Duncan and Bill Gates say that’s a creative idea), oust teachers whose students don’t get higher test scores.

Gov. Scott Walker may indeed be the face of corporate reform. Unimpeded, he can bring to fruition the worst of all their ideas. He joins the march of Republican governors (and a few mayors as well) who think that school reform begins with crushing the teachers’ unions, eliminating tenure, due process, and seniority, and firing 5 to 10 percent of teachers every year.

I’m a great believer in historical accuracy, a habit I find hard to shake, and the value of reading original sources. So here is one I would like to mention to Gov. Walker and his fans: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was adopted by the United Nations on Dec. 10, 1948. To be sure, the document is aspirational; it represents our highest ideals for human rights and dignity, not the realities of 1948 or 2011. It was drafted by a commission headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. Article 23, Section 4 says: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” The United States signed it. Eight nations opposed it, some in the Communist bloc, but also South Africa, which objected to its commitment to racial equality; and Saudi Arabia, which objected to its affirmation of religious freedom.

Add Gov. Walker to that list of eight. And the governors of Indiana, Tennessee, Idaho, Ohio, and several others. They are fighting a movement that enabled millions of working-class Americans to enter the middle class. They are opposed to a basic human right.


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