I debated whether or not to post about Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin’s recall election, and what it might mean for education. While I’m not in general a huge fan of teachers’ unions, I also dislike blaming the unions for all education woes.
Associated Press Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Reading Rick Hess’s Education Week blog this morning changed my mind.
Yesterday he posted an entry arguing that Walker’s victory was good news for education, if not for teachers’ unions:
My take? As I wrote in February 2011, I stand squarely with Walker on this one. His push was necessary and appropriate. As I wrote at the time, “Public employee unions…are unchecked by the competitive constraints and self-interested ownership that help to balance out private sector unions. In…Special Interest, for instance, Stanford’s Terry Moe points out that the Michigan Education Association has distributed a 40-page instructional manual for local leaders that’s entitled ‘Electing Your Own Employer, It’s as Easy as 1, 2, 3.’ And as one high-ranking state union official told me when I wrote Revolution at the Margins, ‘We knew the school system wasn’t moving to Mexico,’ so there was no reason to work with the state negotiator on establishing a prudent salary structure.”
Later that month I noted, “Wisconsin’s public employees collect 74 cents in benefits for every dollar in salary, more than triple the rate for their private sector counterparts. In Milwaukee, the average ten-month salary for a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher is $56,500 but the total cost to MPS is $100,005. Why? For one thing, the Wisconsin state pension calls for a 6.8% employer contribution and a 6.2% employee contribution, but MPS agreed back in 1996 to pay the employee share as well. For another, the 1982 collective bargaining agreement also grants MPS teachers a second pension, funded entirely by a 4.2% district contribution. As for health care, MPS spends 39% of wages on health insurance, compared to a private-sector norm of 11%. MPS pays the full premium for medical and vision benefits and also grants full health care to retirees, with the district picking up the entire premium in effect at retirement.”
As Kimberly Strassel points out in today’s Wall Street Journal,
Unions and liberals have argued that education “reform” is really about starving public schools of money and resources. Mr. Walker’s budget victory has shown that structural government reform is the surest way to put more dollars into kids.
It’s resonating because taxpayers see it working. In addition to limiting collective bargaining, the Walker reforms let schools competitively bid on health insurance, asked employees to contribute to health and pension plans, and introduced merit pay. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the pension provision alone will save schools $600 million over two years, while competitive health bidding is already saving $220 per student per year.
Places like the New Berlin school district, with its 4,700 students, have already reduced health-care costs by $2.3 million, retirement costs by $1.25 million, and other liabilities by $15 million. The district hired new staff, reduced class sizes, and added programs. The Shorewood district saved $537,000 simply by bidding out its health contract (previously run by a union outfit), and also reduced insurance premiums for its teachers.
Self-proclaimed advocates of educators and public education have become so vitriolic, mean-spirited, arrogant, and unreasoning that it’s becoming inane to anyone who’s not a fellow true believer. This means that they’re poorly positioned to convince Americans, and painfully uninteresting to anyone who doesn’t agree with them already.
I was reminded by this yesterday. Seeing that a raft of comments had been offered in response to Wednesday’s column on Scott Walker’s comfortable recall victory in Wisconsin, I went ahead and perused them. I’m a guy who’s friendly with a wealth of people with whom I frequently disagree, interested in how others see issues, and happy to concede that my view of an issue isn’t necessarily “correct.”
Yet, as I read the various critical comments, I didn’t find anything that made me wish I could sit down and talk to the author. Instead, I found a slew of scornful, ad hominem attacks. (Personally, I can’t think of many public debates in American history that were won that way, or many advocates who won public affection that way.)
Rick Hess isn’t usually this testy. But I can easily understand why a guy who has spent most of his professional life both fighting for education reform AND fighting off simplistic “it’s all the unions’ fault” arguments gets frustrated to be accused, once again, of wanting to destroy public education.
The Wisconsin vote did signal that even a traditionally liberal state is willing to rethink how public services can be better provided at a lower cost. Teachers need to enter into this dialogue, not try to shut it off. I think many of us could come up with ways to save money and improve efficiency (how about reducing administrative overhead, for example.)
What do you think?