DFER: On Wisconsin?

Dear friends:

Those who actually read our regular missives know we like to goof around quite a bit here at Democrats For Education Reform. We get wrapped up in some heavy stuff and we usually find that a good sense of humor helps make the medicine go down much easier. Today's note, however, is rather serious.

A few weeks ago when we named Wisconsin Senator Lena Taylor as DFER's "Education Reformer of the Month" for February, we explained why we felt Senator Taylor's brand of leadership was so crucial. Public education in the Badger State, like the rest of the country, faced so many crucial issues as it attempted to reinvent itself to better meet the needs of students and taxpayers that we felt that strong, pragmatic leadership was necessary.

Holy understatement, Batman. Multiply what we said then by a factor of like 1,000 today.

Senator Taylor is one of 14 Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate who have been holed-up in a non-disclosed location in Illinois so as to prevent a quorum, whereby their Republican colleagues would enact legislation that would significantly carve away at the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.
Lena Taylor is not alone. Also holed up in Illinois for similar reasons is Indiana Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, a founding member of DFER-Indiana, and a bunch of her Democratic colleagues.

The problem confronting them is one that most of us who consider ourselves to be Democrats for Education Reform face: How do we keep the political focus on providing a quality education for all students at a time when some Republican leaders appear to be primarily salivating at the chance to whack a significant political opponent ?

Last week I was quoted in the NY Times explaining DFER's feelings regarding teachers unions and collective bargaining. In short: We believe that teacher unions have a crucial voice that should be heard in education debates, but they shouldn't be the only voice. We believe that big problems can (and should!) be solved through collective bargaining, but that someone needs to be in there representing public education when the bargaining takes place. We're fine with confrontation - in fact (like many union leaders have themselves told me) collective bargaining seems to work best when both sides show up with their A-games.

We're kind of creeped-out by some of what we are seeing and hearing these days in the Heartland, at least in terms of seriously rolling-back collective bargaining rights for workers. Reform?

Here at DFER, we are extremely mindful about the difference between means and ends. Because we tend to believe that the inequities in educational access and opportunities are so severe that they require rather aggressive means to achieve the end of an excellent education for every child in America, we often end up in some pretty intense battles. But those battles are means, not ends.

If you are talking about up-ending a powerful status quo to achieve equity and excellence in education, it invariably means  you have to wrestle with powerful interests like teachers unions. We do that without offering apologies, and we'll tell you it isn't fun. But we also enter those battles in a way that is mindful of the important difference between ends and means.

Our "end" is not killing teacher unions. In fact, much of our political work would be a whole lot easier with teacher unions on our side. And as crazy is this may sound to some union leaders who have fought with me in the past, it isn't all that hard for me to imagine a day when many of us ARE on the same page again. Seriously.

If some of the stuff you're hearing out of Wisconsin right now sounds a little like the "end" is really just about weakening public sector unions, you're not alone. We have the same concerns.

It didn't have to be this way. In recent weeks, we watched the Wisconsin Education Association Council come out strongly in support of overhauling teacher evaluation systems. We've read reports about their willingness to contribute a share toward health and pension costs. We were as skeptical as everyone else about WEAC's sincerity, but the game was at least on. This should have been a time in Wisconsin where we were talking about how to build and sustain a better public education system for every student in the state. Astonishingly, that's all been lost in the high-pitched battle that is playing out on the streets of Madison.

The fact that so many people are watching what looks an awful lot like an attempt to stomp unions out of existence threatens to hurt what has been a rather impressive era for education reform that has played out from coast to coast in the last few years. And it isn't just Wisconsin and Indiana. The fight is playing out in places like Ohio as well, and while we're normally an optimistic bunch here at DFER, we are profoundly worried that this kind of overreach will set education reform back years.

We urge all of our supporters to remain focused on ends and means.  Destroying teachers unions does not necessarily equal education reform. Effective action involves being FOR something, and not just against someone.

Which brings us back to Wisconsin Senator Lena Taylor, DFER's "Education Reformer of the Month" for February 2010. While she is hiding out south of the border, she can use your help today. Leaders like Sen. Lena Taylor are going to need to play a crucial role going forward in Wisconsin. We need leaders like Taylor who understand just which battles are worth fighting and why.

Even if you can only give $10, please show your support for Senator Lena Taylor today by supporting her re-election through DFER's Education Reformer of the Month page.

Thanks in advance, and keep up the fight for excellent education.

Joe Williams, DFER's Executive Director