Wisconsin’s teachers union took some big steps last week toward improving our public schools.
For the first time, the Wisconsin Education Association Council endorsed several major reforms that for years it had stubbornly resisted and stalled.
• Junking the outdated teacher pay schedule that rewarded longevity and advanced degrees. Instead, the union now supports merit pay so high-performing and high-demand teachers will earn more.
• Dramatically improving teacher evaluations using, among several other factors, student test results.
• Making it easier to get rid of the worst teachers if mentors and other help doesn’t boost performance.
• Shaking up the failing Milwaukee Public Schools.
“This is the union trying to break through the status quo,” WEAC executive director Dan Burkhalter told the State Journal editorial board last week.
Mary Bell, WEAC’s president, also told the board about getting a congratulatory call from Arne Duncan, Democratic President Barack Obama’s impressive, high-impact education secretary, who has been pressing for these and other reforms for years.
In addition, GOP Gov. Scott Walker called to congratulate Bell last week. He told the State Journal editorial board during a separate meeting that WEAC’s movement was significant and welcome.
“Many of these fit” with Walker’s own ideas for improving student performance and rewarding the best teachers for their important and difficult work, Walker said.
Of course, it’s obvious Walker is a big reason for WEAC’s newfound support for merit pay and other changes. He and his fellow Republicans who won control of the state Capitol last fall pledged to make public schools more accountable and innovative with higher standards.
In fact, if WEAC had come around sooner, Wisconsin might well have won a quarter of a billion dollars in federal education grants from Duncan last year.
But now is not the time to question motives or dispute who gets credit.
Now is the time to improve Wisconsin’s schools so all of our children can better compete for the knowledge-based, higher-wage jobs of the future.
WEAC and other groups of government workers blasted Walker on Friday for his plan to curb the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions. The Democrats, when they controlled the Capitol during the past two years, had expanded WEAC’s bargaining power. So Walker’s move, telegraphed for months during his campaign and first month in office, wasn’t a huge surprise.
Yet the ugly battle over how much power public sector unions should have in Wisconsin shouldn’t be an excuse for WEAC, Walker or the Obama administration to retreat from the common ground they all found last week on key public school reforms.