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Those who think that Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10 destroyed the teachers union locals in the state need to think again.

They may not have the power to bargain for anything but cost-of-living wage increases and members can't pay their dues via convenient payroll deductions, but the locals have survived even though Act 10 requires them to recertify every year, a provision that Walker and the Republican-controlled state Legislature were sure would kill the unions once and for all.

But even though the unions' negotiating powers are limited, there's strong feeling among teachers that someone must stand up for public education in the state. Surely, with the exception of the Department of Public Instruction, state government isn't.

While most now work under "handbook" rules instead of a contract, teachers who have stayed with their unions have been active in supporting "pro-education" school board candidates, lobbying against further attacks on public schools like expanded voucher programs, and advocating for better pay for starting teachers so that quality young people are still attracted to the profession.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, for years the face of the state's teachers unions, recently reorganized into geographic regions around the state to give the locals a coordinated voice and more support from full-time staffers to local officers, almost all of whom are volunteers.

Here in southern Wisconsin, some 90 local unions with 5,521 members in 57 school districts belong to Region 6, which runs from the Mississippi River on the west to the Jefferson-Waukesha County line on the east, encompassing seven counties. It includes 10 districts in the immediate Madison area, but not Madison itself. Madison Teachers Inc. remains an independent union local and still has an active contract with its school district.

Three Region 6 members stopped by the office the other day. One of them was its president, Mark Lindsey, an Oregon High School history teacher, who says that contrary to what some believe, Act 10 actually woke up the union movement among teachers.

"Teachers quickly found out that public schools had a fight on their hands and they needed to be out there defending their schools," he told me.

The assault on public schools hasn't ended. The expansion of the state's private school voucher program, which was inserted in the pending state budget by the Joint Finance Committee, threatens to take yet more money from public schools by dictating that taxpayer aid that would have gone to the public school follow the student to the private one.

And what really rankles teachers is the proposal to allow people with "life experiences," but no teaching credentials and in some cases not even a college degree, to teach in rural schools.

"It's insulting," remarked Cynthia Bliss, a middle school art teacher in Fort Atkinson who has been active in Region 6. "I'm a professional who knows there's much more to teaching than just delivering content."

Kay Bliefernicht, a special ed teacher at Oregon and secretary of Region 6, added that if the licensing changes become law, it's the rural students who will suffer the most. "What we're doing is dumbing down what most people consider the most important job in our society." 

Lindsey says he's been heartened at what he sees as a growing backlash against Act 10 as people in more and more districts, particularly those in hard-pressed rural areas, see what the cutbacks and lack of resources are doing to their schools. Public school support groups have been popping up throughout the state, especially in areas represented by Republican legislators, who have consistently voted against public school interests.

Plus, he says, the unions have had little problem recruiting new teachers into their organizations.

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"They see what's been happening," Lindsey added. "They know that under the cutbacks, teachers with even 10 to 15 years in the classroom can't afford to buy a house for their families. They know that joining together is the only way to get things to change."

And they see change coming someday down the line.

Bliss remembered state Sen. Jon Erpenbach being asked at a meeting why it was that he continues to serve in this political atmosphere.

"Because," he answered, "things will change. And I want to be there when they do."

So do our public school teachers. 

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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