In 1990, Wisconsin set an education reform example for the nation with the passage of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Twenty years later, Governor Scott Walker (R) has identified the obstacle that keeps more children in his state and across the nation from similarly benefiting from parental choice in education: union collective bargaining power protecting their interests rather than the needs of children.
Democratic senators in Wisconsin have fled the state, unionized education employees have left the schools in protest, and thousands of students have been without class as the result of opposition to new measures that Walker is proposing to tackle the state’s nearly $4 billion deficit.
In operation now 20 years, the MPCP has proven successful. But, like Walker’s current proposal to reform collective bargaining policies, the MPCP certainly faced detractors when it was proposed. Walker’s decision to stand strong in the face of union opposition continues Wisconsin’s proud history of being at the forefront of educational reform.
Far from draconian, Walker’s proposal would limit collective bargaining power and reform public employee benefit plans. For the first time, state employees would be responsible for making a 5.8 percent contribution into their pension plans and pick up the tab for 12 percent of their health care benefits. As it currently stands, Wisconsin taxpayers bear 100 percent of the costs.
While Walker’s proposal would allow unions to continue to represent workers, it would prevent the unions from seeking “pay increases above those pegged to the Consumer Price Index unless approved by a public referendum.” It would also prevent unions from forcing employees to pay dues and would require the unions to hold yearly votes to remain viable.
For years, education unions have profited from teachers’ salaries—receiving the bulk of their funding from teachers’ paychecks—while they have successfully stood in the way of the interests of children by blocking much-needed education reforms. And in many cases, teachers have no choice in whether or not to join a union. In 22 forced-unionism states, teachers must either fork over union dues or leave the profession.
And Wisconsin is not alone. The ailing fiscal climates of most states throughout the country, compounded with a demand for improved education, have prompted many state leaders to attempt to loosen the grip of education unions.
In Ohio, 3,800 public-sector employees came to Columbus for a committee hearing to protest measures proposed by Governor John Kasich (R) to curtail union power. According to Bloomberg News, “The measure would eliminate collective bargaining for state workers, prevent local-government employees from negotiating for health insurance and replace salary schedules with merit pay.” While Ohio is moving in the right direction, they are only planning to limit collective bargaining at the state level, not at the local level. Kasich should follow Gov. Walker’s lead and restore voter control over spending and policy decisions.
In Tennessee, a far more robust proposal to ban mandatory collective bargaining for teachers is under consideration, and in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie (R) has been working since his tenure began to require state workers to bear more of the costs for their own benefits.
The momentum Walker has generated in Wisconsin is spreading across the country. Many taxpayers, parents, and teachers understand that state pension and benefit plans for public-sector employees have been on an unsustainable path for a long time. There is no reason that education employees should be immune from tough economic times; there is no reason taxpayers should be expected to continue to fund plush pension and benefit plans. Taxpayers are not cash cows designed to reap the consequences that the collective-bargaining mentality has wrought. In a press conference on Thursday, Walker explained his position:
The thousands of people here and outside of the capitol have every right to be heard. But I want to make sure that not for one moment are their voices drowning out the voices of the millions of taxpayers all across the state of Wisconsin who … have made it clear that they think that while what were doing is a politically bold move, it is a modest request of our employees at the state and local level. … What we’re asking for is better than what the average taxpayer is getting across the state of Wisconsin.
Walker’s is a modest yet bold proposal. It’s modest in its request that public-sector employees take a little responsibility for their own benefits. Like the MPCP, the proposal is a bold move to ensure accountability to taxpayers and to meet the needs of students—not the demands of special interests.
Co-authored by Rachel Sheffield