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Anti-union law puts Milwaukee teachers union in spotlight

Many opponents of the powerful Milwaukee Teachers' Education Assn. are thrilled by a new law that would curb its bargaining rights. But others say it won't resolve the schools' deep troubles.

May 18, 2011|By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times
  • Karen Niehausen, an award-winning teacher in North Lake, Wis., plans to retire at the end of the school year, partly because she is worried about a new law that could end teachers' collective bargaining rights.
Karen Niehausen, an award-winning teacher in North Lake, Wis., plans to… (Gary Porter, Milwaukee…)

Reporting from Milwaukee — Last year, Milwaukee's struggling public school system fired the woman named Wisconsin's outstanding first-year teacher because of union rules that protect senior teachers and require newer ones to be laid off first.

As it cuts 560 more teaching jobs this year, the district faces a bill more than double its entire $1-billion budget to pay for retired teachers' health benefits, a deal that one former school board member described as "the most opulent healthcare package in the world, including Sweden."

When leading Democrats last year tried to place control of the district under Milwaukee's mayor, similar to reform efforts in Chicago and New York, the powerful Milwaukee Teachers' Education Assn. killed the attempt.

For decades, critics have railed against the union.

"Teachers unions do what they're supposed to do, which is protect teachers," said Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent who has fought the union over the district's voucher program. "In the process of protecting teachers, they make it very difficult to ensure a quality education for the kids. The question is, what do we do about it?"

Republican Gov. Scott Walker has ignited a fiery debate with his solution.

In February, he moved to end collective bargaining for most public employees' unions and limit their ability to collect dues from members, which would virtually eliminate them as a political force. He has cited the Milwaukee union as one whose track record pushed him to take action.

There have been partisan overtones to Walker's proposal — he exempted police, firefighter and state trooper unions, which traditionally support Republicans. Teachers unions, which are also facing increased criticism from nonpartisan education reformers, tend to back Democrats.

Walker's move has thrilled some opponents of the Milwaukee union, such as George Mitchell, a former businessman and school choice advocate who had given up trying to best the union in school board races. "The difficulty of trying to roll the rock uphill against the union just wilts your soul," he said.

Now he hopes the Milwaukee district will be able to require all teachers to pay a vastly larger share of their health benefits. Until this year, they paid nothing.

But even some who have battled the union over the years oppose Walker's solution. The union's most intractable period was in the 1980s and 1990s, said John Gardner, a former school board director who was ousted by a union-backed candidate in 2003.

In the last decade, the union has agreed to a program to discipline and fire bad teachers and made concessions in how much its members pay for their top-flight health plan.

"Teachers unions get blamed for larger managerial failings. They're not, after all, in charge," Gardner said. If the union were eliminated, he added, "my fear is we'd suffer a decline in the quality of the teaching force."

Teachers in the Milwaukee district face particular challenges. Eighty-six percent of the district's students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Low-income parents can use vouchers to send their children to private and parochial schools, a decades-long experiment that Walker proposes expanding. That has left the district with a disproportionate share of students with learning disabilities — 19%. In voucher schools, which can return students to the Milwaukee district if they don't behave, the figure is 1% to 8.6%.

"They're not the bad guy," Michael Bonds, president of the school board, said of the union, which opposed his election in 2007.

Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Assn., said that the attacks on teachers unions were part of an effort to cut spending on education and shift the money to businesses and the wealthy in the form of tax cuts.

"We're at this fundamental place where we're going to decide what kind of country we're going to be," Langyel said. "I say unions are great and they make education better."

Walker in February called for public workers to pay more for health benefits and their pensions, the equivalent of an 8% pay cut. More controversially, he also proposed barring pay raises above inflation and requiring annual votes to allow unions to stay in business.

Amid huge protests from unions, Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to try to block passage of Walker's bill, which the Legislature ultimately approved in March. The measure is tied up in the courts after a judge found its passage violated Wisconsin's public meetings law, but the GOP-controlled Legislature is expected to pass it again as part of Walker's budget in the coming weeks.

Some of Walker's allies say that neutering public employee unions would save taxpayers money and improve public services, especially schools. They point to Milwaukee, where spending per pupil has risen 50% above inflation since 1991.

"Forty to 45 years of bargaining have produced a fiscally unsustainable district where kids are learning at low levels," Mitchell said.

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