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A lesson for Colorado schools in Wisconsin’s public-sector union reforms

By | November 30th, 2012

For the past couple years, Wisconsin has been the locus of the political battle to weaken public-sector union power. After Gov. Scott Walker not only survived but thrived amid a failed recall election, conservatives breathed a sigh of relief. Most prominently, the costly but decisive victory revived hopes that fiscal sanity and a sense of fairness could be restored.

Modest cuts to lavish benefits for government employees, along with some of the accompanying tools approved in Walker’s controversial Budget Repair Bill, put the Badger State back on a healthy fiscal setting and brought compensation more back in line with private sector workers.

But a new video [see above] from the Association of American Educators reminds us that the Wisconsin reforms also promoted professionalism and individual empowerment for teachers. Walker’s state left the ranks of those where union monopoly power feeds off teacher tribute payments.

While a national survey ranked Colorado teachers unions number one nationally in their status giving politically to state candidates, they are generally weaker in that they lack the across-the-board power to compel support, a power their Wisconsin counterparts once had. No state law requires Colorado teachers to join or pay dues to a union (and they have a growing number of membership options).

Nonetheless, local unions still can make it hard for members to get out. And their state lobbying arm recently beat back a legislative attempt to give teachers more flexibility and freedom.

Though bruised and bloodied in Wisconsin and a few other places, union leaders have shown no inclination to “go gentle into that good night.” Nationally they had some Election Day success with the defeats of key ballot initiatives in Idaho and of a strong education reform leader in Indiana.

Closer to home, teachers union leaders do not want to lose the power grip they have attained in Colorado. Leaders in school districts have watched with varying degrees of interest as Douglas County school board — representing the state’s third-largest district — this year ended up cutting ties with union monopoly power. At least as important, in September they established policy ending the district’s role of using taxpayer resources to collect funds for the union political machine. Next up, perhaps, will be more options for teachers.

The comparison of DougCo to Wisconsin was made last summer, as the union negotiations heated up and broke down. The comparison is bound to return in 2013 as the American Federation of Teachers and its allies aim their political cannons south of Denver in a pivotal school board campaign. It’s past time for the education reform team — those who want to expand parental choice and teacher professionalism — to wake up and get engaged.

A year from now, either reformers will celebrate Wisconsin-like success as DougCo’s cutting-edge, parent-friendly and performance-based innovation will be vindicated and begin taking hold beyond its boundaries. Or union resurgence will shut down a major path to positive change in Colorado education.

[Cross-posted from Mount Virtus.]

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