WRPN interviewed Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the statewide teacher union and the number one obstacle to improving education in a cost-effective manner in Wisconsin.
(Before we go on: Does this headline mean that I believe that Wisconsin teachers and non-teachers are on opposite sides? Certainly not. But given that teacher unions believe they speak for all their members, the phrase “guilt by association” comes to mind. Perhaps they’d prefer another acronym for WEAC I found on Facebook: “We Extort And Coerce.” And I am not comparing WEAC to the Mafia. One of WEAC’s members already did.)
Bell’s interview is interesting in that it provides insight into the mindset of teacher unions, the scourge of taxpayers, students and teachers who are actual professionals. Teacher unions, of course, treat their members, who have earned bachelor’s, master’s and even doctoral degrees, as the public-school equivalent of $10-an-hour laborers. (Here’s a tip: If a teacher is known more in a community for leading the teacher union and working in politics than for his teaching, he’s really not a teacher.)
Bell certainly didn’t back into the interview by beginning with niceties or local references. To an opening question about “how do we make schools a priority” (as if they’re not), Bell fired:
We want to make them a priority in terms of the positives and the things we know Wisconsin citizens have traditionally valued about their schools. You don’t do it by cutting budgets by nearly a billion dollars, but that’s what the Legislature has just done and the governor is about to sign. But you do it by saying these are the things that our communities want and need for their schools, these are the resources that are necessary, and we make that argument community by community, to the Legislature and the governor, that the direction they’re heading is not the direction that Wisconsin wants for its public schools.
It is absurd to assert that schools are not “a priority” when schools and public safety comprise more than half of the spending in the 2011–13 state budget. Note also the order in which Bell orders things: “these are the things that our communities want and need for their schools [and] these are the resources that are necessary,” instead of starting with what our state’s overtaxed taxpayers can afford. (“Affordability” appears to be as alien a concept to WEAC specifically and public employee unions generally as the word “conservative.”)
Note also Bell’s comment about making “that argument community by community.” One can infer from that that WEAC doesn’t want any state-mandated spending controls, which will force — the horror! — school districts to reduce property taxes in the next two fiscal years.
That “community by community” argument, which was the state approach until the state established two-thirds funding for schools in the 1990s, resulted in, for instance, three school districts in one county having the highest (more than $31 per $1,000 assessed valuation), eighth highest and 11 highest property tax mil rates in the entire state. (I was there.) Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus was fond of quoting his favorite iteration of the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Accept more state money, accept the rules that go along with it.
Bell talked about how WEAC has worked with the superintendent of public instruction (now there’s a real taxpayer watchdog) and “a number of other organizations” on …
… other ways to adequately fund our public schools, to focus the money where it’s needed, and to say that there are some places that are simply going to need more funding than others, some students for whom resources are not adequate, where in other cases they might be. We need to do that in a discussion community by community about how these things are done. And we need to make sure that everyone is paying their fair share. We’ve heard a lot in the last few months about shared sacrifice. But the actions that the Legislature has taken have really focused that sacrifice on a given group of people and said that corporations are going to get more tax breaks than they did before, and not just Wisconsin companies but multinational companies that really don’t provide a framework for our state’s economy.
The term “fair share,” of course, really means “more.” (Perhaps WEAC actually stands for “We Expect All Cash.”) It is interesting to note that even Gov. James Doyle and the previous Democrat-controlled Legislature did not endorse such proposals as increasing sales taxes for education as education groups wanted, nor has anyone with actual political power signed off on the three-decade-old proposal to take school taxes off the property tax.
Bell’s quote about “corporations are going to get more tax breaks than they did before” exposes (not that that’s a surprise) the anti-free enterprise nature of WEAC and public employee unions. The aforementioned “multinational companies that really don’t provide a framework for our state’s economy” presumably include Kraft Foods (5,000 employees in Wisconsin), Rockwell Automation (5,000), Mercury Marine (3,000), Georgia–Pacific (2,500) and Johnson Controls (2,500), among the largest private-sector employers in this state. The aforementioned “Wisconsin companies” include Menards Inc. (10,000), Marshfield Clinic (5,000), ThedaCare (5,000), Affinity Health (4,300), and Lands’ End (4,000). And yet Bell believes sticking it to business will mean more money for schools. You’d think teacher unions would want to be nice to the companies whose donations of money and employee time augment schools, but you’d apparently be wrong.
Bell also said this about teacher evaluation proposals: “Just as we don’t think that any child is described by a test score, we don’t believe that any educator is described by the kind of test scores that students get.” (Which will come as a surprise to students whose grades are indeed “described by a test score,” as many test scores as a student takes in a particular class.) Bell said student learning was “one part of what educators are to do. It’s very important, but there are lots of other factors that go into the learning in the classrooms.”
(For those who think it’s unfair to judge teachers by their students’ test scores, one potential way to fairly do that was devised in, of all places, my seventh-grade math class in the late 1970s. At the beginning of each unit, we students took a pretest, and at the end of each unit, we took a test. Our grades were determined by a combination of the final test score and by the improvement in our score from the beginning to the end of the unit. That’s how a higher test score could lead to a lower grade if there was little improvement between pretest and the last test.)
Working in higher education taught me a major difference between education and most other lines of work. Most people who work in business (and, for that matter, those who work in educational advancement or admissions) are based on results. Educators judge their work on process, which is why such terms as “pedagogy” and “rubrics,” terms not found in normal conversation, enter the atmosphere. The fact that non-teachers may not grasp that difference does not make educators superior to non-educators, particularly taxpayers and parents.
The purpose of employee evaluations is to determine an employee’s contribution to the organization and that employee’s appropriate compensation, which includes the number “zero,” as in the employee needs to work somewhere else. Any teacher evaluation process that does not weed out bad teachers is worthless to those whose taxes pay teacher salaries and benefits. If you listen to that segment, you will conclude that teacher unions want to come up with their own evaluation criteria and have no input at all from, you know, taxpayers, or even parents. (Perhaps WEAC actually stands for “We Eschew All Critiques.”)
The irony here is that teachers and taxpayers do have common ground. My example comes from southeast of Wisconsin — a 2010 Weekly Standard story about Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels:
We were having lunch one day … when a reporter from the local radio station appeared. She pressed him on the education budget cuts too. She told him the local school board had just laid off nine teachers and an administrator.
“What would you say to those people?” she asked.
He visibly flinched …
“I’d say it should have been nine administrators and one teacher. There are 20 things that school board could do before it had to lay off one teacher.”
One would think taxpayers and teacher unions could agree that every administrator in a school district that does not have the title “superintendent” (without the words “assistant” or “deputy” in front) or “principal” is a position the school district needs to rethink. School districts that in times of fiscal strain keep such administrators and lay off, or don’t hire, teachers are committing administrative and educational malpractice. (Administrator salaries are always higher than teacher salaries, so every administrator position costs the equivalent of 1.5 to 2 teacher Full Time Equivalents. On the other hand, administrators are always former teachers, so perhaps teacher unions’ looking the other way on administrator employment is another example of looking out for their own at everyone else’s expense.) Such spending scrutiny should also be applied on those school districts that maintain their own school bus fleets instead of hiring a company to provide school bus services, or other spending that is not central to a school district’s educational mission.
Bell’s interview is, to be blunt, worthy of an F grade in public relations, but I’m betting WEAC doesn’t grasp how bad this interview was for Bell or for WEAC. (Which wouldn’t be a first: A teacher I know, who is not a union activist, was genuinely shocked to find out that at least some people in his school district favored public employees’ paying more for their benefits because they had paid more for their own benefits for years.) She began by insulting those who didn’t vote for WEAC-supported candidates Nov. 2 (that is, most voters) and those who support the attempts by Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature to put reasonable controls on the billions of dollars the state sends to school districts every year. She then veered off into claiming that only education professionals can judge their own work, a rhetorical middle finger to those whose taxes pay for education professionals’ work. By the time she veered back into complaining about inadequate (by her definition) educational funding, as in Ferris Bueller’s economics class, most listeners probably had mentally checked out.