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Newswire: June 5, 2012

Vol. 14, No. 23

WISCONSIN RE-CALL. Labor’s credibility is on the line today as voters in Wisconsin go to the ballot box for the gubernatorial recall election. Governor Walker’s all-out assault on collective bargaining sparked this most expensive election in the state’s history. Although most political pundits are giving the edge to Walker, voter turnout is key to the outcome. But, others suggest that if labor, including teacher unions, take a loss, it may not be as unexpected as thought…

LOVE’S LOST ON LABOR. Public opinion of teacher unions, even among teachers themselves, is on the wane. That’s according to a survey released by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and the journal Education Next. Between 2009-2011, the annual poll found little movement, with about 40% of respondents neutral in their views of teacher unions. But, this latest poll finds unions losing ground. Among teachers surveyed, the drop is even more dramatic. In 2011, 58% of teachers had a positive view of unions, dropping to 43% in 2012. Teachers holding a negative view of unions nearly doubled during the same time period, from 17% to 32%, all of which could explain the NEA’s reported loss of 200,000 members by 2014. The researchers responsibly say the decrease in teacher support could be due to an opinion that unions are not doing their job in Legislatures nationwide, given the hard hits they have taken on benefits, evaluations, etc. However, they also note that dwindling teacher support could emanate from a realization that unions are putting up roadblocks to meaningful reform.

UNION LIP SERVICE. Given the results of this poll and reform trends nationwide, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathew’s characterization of union “tolerance” and support for charters and evaluations is befuddling at best. In a recent column on Obama and Romney’s ed reform similarities, Mathews waxes on about their big difference – teacher unions. Edspresso takes on Mathews’ assertion that teacher unions alleged toleration of charters and teacher evaluations shows their seriousness about reform. Not really. Union rhetoric that spouts support for teacher evaluations and charter schools should not be confused with a dedicated drive to install evaluations with teeth and charters designed to make swift hiring/firing decisions and other changes to benefit students. And, Mathews should know that. He just needs to take a peek inside the on-average 153-page collective bargaining agreements, as did researchers Fred Hess (AEI) and Martin West (Brookings) in a Harvard report, A Better Bargain: Overhauling Teacher Collective Bargaining for the 21st Century, that calls for a major overhaul of collective bargaining. They write that today’s collective bargaining agreements were “designed for a bygone era” and “forestall changes to educational practices and compensation systems that are essential to enhancing teaching and learning.”

CHANGING FOCUS. Trending nationwide is an emphasis on teacher evaluations that include student testing, despite union outrage. Coupled with tenure reform, the goal is to keep top teachers in the classroom and hurry out the door to another profession those who fail to boost student achievement. In a profile of one thorny teacher dismissal case, Washington Post reporter Emma Brown gets it right. Because Fairfax County, Virginia, does not yet have an evaluation system that includes student testing, they rank their teachers based only on a list of county-approved techniques (use of technology, small group instruction). In this case, the teacher’s students’ scores were on par with others in her school, but allegedly she didn’t use all of the practices required by the district. Brown concludes correctly that “the focus is on how teachers teach, not whether students learn.” Seems as if Fairfax County needs to go back to the drawing board to remember why they are in existence.

NO GIANT STEP… but noteworthy still is the North Carolina Senate vote to pass legislation designed to improve education outcomes for students. The bill eliminates tenure, calling for all teachers to sign annual contracts, instead. Other provisions include: permitting the dismissal of teachers or principals working in low-performing schools who receive two consecutively sub-par evaluations; granting local boards the authority to establish their own performance-pay systems, which includes working in low-income/high at-risk schools, although this does not guarantee a quality teacher. Take a look at the Hoosier State (Indiana) for a real giant step forward for reform.

BACKSLIDE. The charter proposal that is percolating in Pennsylvania under a reform label is one that, unfortunately, would “create more bureaucracy, hinder the innovation in public education…and set Pennsylvania’s reform efforts back.” Read more on this critical issue in our CER Alert.