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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Setting Teachers Free

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In addition to far more serious concerns about our schools, such as whether we have either the ability or desire to educate all children, we are about to experience a firestorm of controversy over teacher pay.

We’ve finally arrived at the moment in this state’s political history that public school teachers have been awaiting for 16 years. Teachers are about to win back the right all other unionized workers are guaranteed by federal law: the right to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions.

Don’t expect the opponents of public school teachers to give up without a fight. Right-wing radio will go into all-attack, all-the-time mode trashing teachers and their unions with sky-is-falling predictions of soaring tax rates.

Don’t be taken in by inflammatory, simple-minded rhetoric. If you take just a minute to sort out the state’s complicated system for controlling spending on education, giving teachers more freedom to bargain seems like basic fairness. In fact, given the difficulty of collective bargaining during times of economic crisis, teachers may even begin to see the wisdom of the old adage: “Be careful what you wish for.”

To understand the philosophy behind education funding in Wisconsin, you have to go back to the administration of Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and what he called his three-legged stool. At the time, it was a pretty good example of how collective bargaining can work. It was a process of give-and-take. All sides gained something in exchange for giving up something else.

The state agreed to pay two-thirds of the cost of public education. But so those costs would not be open-ended, limits were placed on what school districts could spend and what teachers could gain in negotiations. State-imposed revenue caps allowed the operating budgets of schools to rise by about 2% a year. And collective bargaining on teacher pay was virtually shut down through a process called the Qualified Economic Offer.

School districts and their teachers’ unions could still bargain contracts, theoretically, but school districts had the power to end negotiations at any time. A school district could unilaterally impose its economic offer upon the union as long as pay and benefits amounted to a 3.8% increase a year. That was the so-called Qualified Economic Offer, or QEO.

Imposing its own proposals in labor negotiations is a management dream. Who wants to sit down with a bunch of mere employees and actually talk with them about their petty concerns?

It didn’t take long for management to get out of the habit of collective bargaining altogether. School districts would automatically impose their QEOs instead of engaging in the give-and-take that can make for a better workplace.

Other economic changes over the last 16 years made the QEO even more unfair to teachers. In 1993, when the process began, a 3.8% increase in wages and benefits was a pretty good package. But as the cost of health insurance exploded, the percentage increase was quickly eaten up by health care benefits alone.

That gave school districts the power to impose contracts with minimal pay increases. Is it any wonder getting rid of the QEO has become a rallying cry for teachers across the state?

Earning the Same Rights

Now, at last, teachers’ unions and the Democratic politicians they supported are in position to eliminate the QEO and give teachers the same right to bargain their wages as any other unionized employees. Gov. Jim Doyle has opposed the QEO ever since he’s been in office and he now has a Democratic majority in both the state Senate and Assembly.

Eliminating the QEO is in the governor’s budget submitted to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee and last week the committee defeated a Republican attempt to remove it from the budget.

One Republican senator described the chances of QEO being eliminated this year as 100%.

So victory is at hand for teachers, but unfortunately that means putting up with a lot of ugly attacks on the job of teaching. Forget about encouraging the best people to become teachers with inspirational stories about how teaching can change lives. Right-wing radio will be working overtime to demonize teachers as greedy, overpaid baby sitters out to bankrupt their school districts and then take the summer off.

The truth is giving back the rights of teachers to bargain their own contracts isn’t going to bankrupt anybody. We are seeing just how hard it is for unions these days to negotiate with companies that are facing bankruptcy.

And what if President Barack Obama really does succeed, as he declares we must, in reforming health care and reducing the enormous health insurance burden on employers that has become unbearable for every industry in America and every level of government, including school districts?

Without the overwhelming cost of health care, a guaranteed QEO of 3.8% a year might look pretty good to teachers.

What’s your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.