Walker Walks the Walk

The high school teacher addressing a Madison "Community Conversation on Education" looked the part: a salt-and-peppered version of Welcome Back, Kotter. But it was as the president of Madison Teachers, Inc. that Mike Lipp introduced himself to the audience of 300 parents, community leaders and teachers.

"That's a UNION!" Lipp explained, emphasizing the final word. "I'm a member of a UNION!"

Before teaching, Lipp bragged that he had been a member of the United Auto Workers, the old-school industrial assembly line union. He did not talk about students.

This was November 2010, the start of a 20-month period in Wisconsin that would reduce the outsized power of the reactionary teachers unions and pave the way for true education reform.

Scott Walker, a Republican, had just been elected governor but had not yet "dropped the bomb," the Act 10 changes to collective bargaining that would free elected school boards to concentrate on curriculum instead of union grievances. But the rumble of change was already sounding.

The heartbreaking documentary Waiting for Superman was showing in theaters across the nation. The film indicted teachers unions for their complicity in the failure of America's public schools to educate its minority population.

In a few months, Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs would reveal that, in the last months of his life, Apple's co-founder advised President Obama, "Until the teachers unions are broken, there is almost no hope for education reform. Teachers should be treated as professionals, not as industrial assembly-line workers."

In the auditorium that night in Madison, a young black man spoke truth to power. Madison Urban League President Kaleem Caire indignantly reported that the Madison Metro School District graduated only 48% of its black students; 56% of its Latinos.

Caire did not prescribe the usual nostrum of higher taxes but an actual solution: a charter school focused on serving long-neglected minority-race students. Its male students would wear jackets and ties. It would hold school 23 days longer than the public schools and each school day would be two hours longer.

"We need entirely different schools to fit the needs of students, not the teachers and administrators," Caire said then. It would be called Madison Preparatory Academy. It would be non-union.

Three months later, Gov. Walker announced his Act 10 reforms. For the next two months the state Capitol was besieged with protestors who camped overnight, beat on drums, blew horns, chanted slogans, and cheered demagogues like Jesse Jackson and Ed Schultz. Fourteen Democratic senators holed up in Illinois to enforce minority rule.

Madison teachers led a statewide teacher sick-out, unilaterally shutting down Madison schools for four days – many using fake doctor's excuses. They chanted "this is what democracy looks like," a notion that was not corrected until the weary people of Wisconsin gave Gov. Walker an even bigger margin of victory in the June 5 recall election than they did 20 months earlier.

Walker will hold office until January 2015. The Madison teachers union contract – and with it, the forced collection of union dues – expires July 1, 2013.

Enabling enemies

Walker could not have done it without the tone-deaf intransigence of the teachers unions. Milwaukee's union sued for taxpayer-paid Viagra. In Madison, the school board shot down the Urban League's proposed charter school because it was non-union. After all, the members owed their elections to union support.

Voters got an object lesson in Big Labor quid pro quo when Kathleen Falk promised to hold the entire state budget hostage in exchange for the union bosses' endorsement (and $5 million in cash). Falk was drubbed in the Democratic primary. The nominee, Tom Barrrett, refused to defend the unions.

At a taxpayer cost of $16 million, this year's recall elections were not a complete waste. They taught Wisconsin voters that teachers unions are more than an expensive anachronism, they are an impediment to progress. Only 22% of Americans now think unions are a positive force for education, down from 29% last year, according to Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance.

There lies a better way for our teachers. It's always been in front of their noses. Now, with no choice, they will be forced to take it. Professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the nurses at St. Mary's Hospital have eschewed union confrontation in favor of shared governance, one professional to another. This collegial model will free K-12 teachers to innovate. Merit will be rewarded, results expected. The focus will be on student achievement.

That will be Gov. Walker's true legacy.