Midwest Union Battles Highlight Debate over Improving Schools
Policy + Politics

Midwest Union Battles Highlight Debate over Improving Schools

INDIANAPOLIS - The Republican faceoff with labor unions in the Midwest and elsewhere marks not just a fight over money and collective bargaining, but also a test of wills over how to improve the nation's schools.

GOP governors are pushing to limit teacher bargaining rights, dismantle teacher tenure and channel public money toward private schools. All are direct challenges to the teachers unions and their mostly Democratic political allies in Congress and in statehouses across the nation.

This approach to school reform is far more confrontational than President Obama's and threatens to polarize what has been a largely bipartisan movement to overhaul education. Analysts say teachers might grow leery of signing onto a school improvement agenda if they believe it will trample their rights.

"This is big," Rick Muir, president of the Indiana Federation of Teachers, said of the Republican agenda. "It's not one item. It's not two. They've seized the opportunity to go on the attack. They're going for the jugular."

Here in Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), a possible 2012 presidential contender, and several of his Republican peers are pushing a bill to connect teacher evaluations with test scores, launch a system of performance-based pay and make it easier to dismiss teachers repeatedly rated ineffective or in need of improvement. Other Daniels-backed bills would offer publicly funded vouchers to help children of low to moderate means attend private school and narrow the scope of collective bargaining to wages and benefits.

The governor calls vouchers a matter of "simple justice" for families that lack options. He says teacher contracts too often hamstring administrators, setting rules for when principals can call staff meetings or who can monitor students at recess. And while he says that "teachers should have tenure," Daniels believes they should have to earn it through proven ability.

"I've been praising teachers and public education and trying to support it relentlessly for six years," the governor said. "It does no good. When you cross the union, you're the enemy."

For more than a week, Indiana's House of Representatives has been frozen by a Democratic walkout, echoing a standoff in the Wisconsin Senate. Pro-union demonstrations are popping up across the state and filling the Statehouse. One day, a guitarist sang the Woody Guthrie folk anthem "This Land is Your Land" to union backers inside the Statehouse while tea party activists ridiculed absent Democrats as "fleehadists" in a counter-demonstration on a sidewalk outside.

Read more at The Washington Post.