Wisconsin: Who’s to blame?

Who’s to blame for the teachers’ crisis in Wisconsin?  Andrew Rotherham has blame to go around.

The liberals want local control in Wisconsin, while Republican Gov. Scott Walker doesn’t trust local school boards to drive a hard bargain with teachers’ unions, writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

Indiana Democrats left the state to block a right-to-work bill. Gov. Mitch Daniels said he won’t ask state police to pursue the missing legislators. He wants his fellow Republicans to postpone the bill.

Teachers’ pensions are unsustainable, writes RiShawn Biddle.

Does the conflict in Madison represent “creative destruction” or plain old destruction?  Government workers are in for a painful transition, writes Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest. But the only alternative to improving productivity is seeing living standards decline for all Americans, he argues.

What we’ve got to do here is to deploy technology and aggressive, creative reform and restructuring to health, education and government.  Much bureaucratic work in government is routine; computers are going to have to replace people wherever possible.  Staffs are going to have to shrink in ways that are simply unimaginable to present day government workers and their union leaders.

The educational system is going to change radically, Mead predicts. Students will be “evaluated and credentialed on the basis of what they know, not on the basis of time served.”  That will end the pressure to earn meaningless degrees.

Employees will demonstrate their competence to employers by passing exams in different job-relevant subjects that test real skills; the training for these tests will be provided by entrepreneurial organizations that are likely to rapidly replace many of the inefficient and expensive post-secondary educational institutions around today, once appropriate systems to regulate their practices and monitor their performance can be developed.  (Traditional liberal arts education needs to survive, and it will, but education and training are very different things that require very different approaches.  To promote economic growth and social mobility, and to help individuals continually retool their skills in a changing economy, we need to separate training from education and make training as widely available, cheap and convenient as possible.)

I was a union (Newspaper Guild) member for many years when I worked for a Knight Ridder newspaper.  Knight Ridder, once the second largest newspaper chain in the U.S., no longer exists. My former colleagues have taken wage cuts, unpaid furloughs, “give backs” on benefits and still seen two thirds of the editorial staff laid off.  If your employer’s business model becomes obsolete, workers have to adapt, which means working harder and smarter to replace your laid-off colleagues, finding a new job and learning to live on less money.  “Creative destruction” is a bitch, but it beats destruction.

About Joanne


  1. Creative destruction also provides tremendous opportunites to those willing and able to take risks and innovate. (See Bill Gates and Steve Jobs). It also allows participation by those locked out of closed systems. The empty credentialing that acts as a gatekeeper for many professions becomes less relevant and the uncredentialed but capable are empowered. It’s a race to the top (or capable), not to the bottom (the mediocre).

  2. Yes Stacy.. that’s it… just tell all those teachers to just be like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs… that’s the ticket! Smack, why didn’t I think of that!

  3. I’m not sure who is to blame…but I think this situation has been years in the making, on the part of the unions.

    They’ve had decades to change the way they do business, and they shouldn’t be surprised that not everyone is sympathetic to their cause.

    I’m a former union member…I was aghast at what I saw when I worked in union workplaces. Everything from being told who to vote for, to the union defending someone who sat in a chair for 8 hours straight because she didn’t like her work assignment.

  4. Kate… some of those things (being told who to vote for) occur in the private sector too… not to mention layers of ineffectual, nonproductive middle management.

    Are there union excesses? Absolutely.
    Are they part of the problem standing in the way of education innovation? Absolutely.
    Should public employees contribute more for pensions and healthcare? Possibly yes!

    But the wholesale union bashing is getting a bit tiresome… the idea that the biggest contributor to the financial crises states are facing is at the feet of teachers, police, firemen, and other civil workers is preposterous.

    I do find it interesting that most of the union-bashing seems to give a pass to police/fire/correction officers unions who often are big supporters of Republicans.

  5. JAB…when I was a union member my dues were used to publish extensive written materials about the candidates. I realize that in any workplace, one’s employer might have certain views about who might be the most favorable candidate, I’ve never encountered anything pushing a certain candidate as I did as union member.

    As a person who leans a little to the left(hasn’t always), I’ve always been dismayed that the Dems think they need to blindly defend the unions. There are some local politicians and Deomocratic party activits who might as well be paid union employees.

    My general comment though was that the union has had decades to change the way they do business, and have chosen not to….and I think that is where some of the union bashing comes from.

  6. Jab, I’m afraid that your comment end up sounding like……

    Blah, blah, blah TEABAGGER. Blah, blah, blah, FAUX NEWS, Blah, blah, blah, KOCH BROTHERS, blah, blah, blah WALL STREET.

    Trying to shout down people instead of engaging in arguments is childish. Not everything is about partisian politics and REPUBLICANS.

  7. If I lived in a state that required teachers to belong to a (the) union, I would not be a teacher.

  8. Stacy in NJ-
    I think that with the “blah, blah, blah” comment, your goal was to shut Kate down.

    I also think that regardless of how this ends up, our education system is going to take another major hit. That will be due in part to the fact that the profession is not going to save face very easily on the union/anti-union argument. As the argument continues, even fewer people will want to join the profession and the effort to get better teachers into the classrooms will be all the more difficult.

    Then I suppose “both” sides will blame each other for how we’ve dramatically failed our children.

  9. Nick..I partly agree with you that the whole spectacle looks bad to would be teachers…not sure what the answer is there.

  10. Nick, how so? I didn’t even address Kate or her point. I was hoping that jab would come up with an argument rather than an assertion. I hope in vain.

  11. I saw Stacy’s remarks as aimed at jab, not me.

  12. I think this whole topic is interesting and that the above posts are more thought provoking and reasonable, by and large, than what I hear in other sectors.

    People are upset about what’s happening in Wisconsin and it takes an effort to see what’s going on and where things should go.

    I think a revolution is in the making and it’s time for us to ask the larger questions.

    It’s time for teachers and other civil servants to stop singing Pete Seeger songs in their heads.

    We’re not coal miners. We’re not garment workers.

    I think Joanne’s comparison with Knight-Ridder is a good one.

    When I first started teaching, I used a typewriter, I wore a spring powered Timex watch, no classroom had a telephone and teachers had “associations,” not unions.

    Times have changed.

    CTA is a monster of a big business whose sole purpose it seems is to grow more powerful.

    Should CTA die or should it survive?

    To answer that question, I would talk to the extraordinary elementary school teachers that my son had. I would ask them if they would have joined the profession and stayed if there had been no CTA. If we can attract and keep quality people like that without the union, the union should die. If we can’t, we should pay the price and keep the monster.

    I think most of them would have become teachers even without the union, but I don’t know that as a fact.

    Because of the discussion concerning Wisconsin and the questions it’s raised, I plan to quit CTA next week. They make it hard to do, but I think I’ll do it anyway.

    I will still have to pay about 70% of the union dues due to the 1999 court ruling about closed shop and so-called “executive fees,” and I’ll have to pay in many nonmonetary ways, but I think I’ll do it.

    It’s time to plan for a good teaching system without this big business that pretends to be a union.

  13. My apologies. I did mean Jab.

  14. “We’re not coal miners. We’re not garment workers.”

    If teachers form unions, then yes, they are just like coal miners and garment workers. Folks from outside of education do not and will not see teachers as a professional community if teachers form unions and let the unions represent them.

  15. jab,

    “Are there union excesses? Absolutely.
    Are they part of the problem standing in the way of education innovation? Absolutely.
    Should public employees contribute more for pensions and healthcare? Possibly yes!”

    Possibly yes? Possibly? When the single biggest long-term threat to public financial stability is unfunded pension liabilities caused by extravagant pensions, all you can manage is possibly? Unbelievable.

    The animosity towards public sector unions is rather simple to explain. The unions have been excellent at getting gold-plated benefits for their members. They’ve also proven ruthless in getting those benefits, including seeing no limits to the extent other people should be taxed. To those of us who participate in the non-government, non-union economy, this is both infuriating and extremely threatening.

    As if that weren’t bad enough, we see some public sector unions insisting on work rules that enable the worst employees to still get the gold-plated benefits despite causing harm in their jobs. Bad enough that the union bosses would be willing to rob me blind to make sure their members get paid… Patently offensive that they would do it for employees that shouldn’t even be on the payroll.

    At the same time that the unions are defending the worst of the worst, they are claiming that they care about the quality of services their members provide. The worst offender, in this regard, is the National Education Association. Even the organization’s name is a damned lie. The NEA has nothing, *nothing*, to do with education. It has everything to do with enriching and empowering its leadership and, secondarily, its members.

    Now, top off the above with this: The unions take money from their members to fuel political campaigns to support candidates who will represent them in government. As a taxpayer, if a legislator is representing a union who wants more money for less work, that legislator *cannot* simultaneously be representing my interest to pay less for more work. So, I see unions buying off legislators to work against my interests. That just pisses me off. (In the interest of fairness, I despise large corporations for the same reason.)

    The unions have alienated pretty much everyone confronted with paying for their excesses. They really shouldn’t be surprised if they start running into politicians willing and able to hurt them and their members. The states are at the point where the books aren’t balancing and the numbers don’t lie. Public sector benefit excesses are budgetary enemy number one.

    (jab, I know already that by posting a viewpoint that dares to be contrary to yours I’ve branded myself a “teabagger” and a shill for “FAUX NEWS” in your mind. If that’s all you can come up with to smear me, please save yourself the trouble.)

  16. What goldplated pension benefits? I don’t collect social security at all (even though I paid into it for non-education jobs I’ve worked). Social Security taxes are 4.2% for 2011. That’s what you pay. For my “gold” pension, I contribute 14% of my salary. My employer also contributes 10% (about what social security tax would be). After thirty years, I’ll get 70% of my last three year’s pay average. Teachers in my state top out with a doctorate at around 70K. There is no match for my 403b. I’d say I’m in the bronze range. You know, better than social security alone, but I pay more towards it than people in the social security system. Oh, and we do NOT get medical coverage upon retirement. That’s out of our own pocket.

  17. Lightly Seasoned,

    Part of the outrage in Wisconsin is that the teachers’ union has secured a 0% contribution for a pension and health care. That’s pretty gold-plated if you ask me. That is not to say that all unions have done as well.

    As for Social Security, be thankful you’re *not* in it. Many people never even recoup what they paid in.

  18. Quincy…
    If the shoe fits…

    Lightly seasoned…
    I am a college professor in science/engineering in a mid-tier university in California…
    After earning a M.S. and a PhD degree and 5 years work experience, I became a professor… after 4 years as a professor, I make a whopping 60,000 before taxes… I contribute 5% of my salary to my pension… if I contribute to a 401k/403b, I get ZERO matching. Teaching loads are high, class sizes are large… I have no teaching assistants and no graders… on top of it all, I do independent research and bring in over a hundred thousand a year in federal scientific grants to my university… which more than makes up for my paltry salary. My work week is typically 60 hours per week because I have to teach AND do research.

    But to the teabaggers, I am bankrupting the state of California… not the corporations, not the bankers… but the teachers. It is utter bullshit.

    I can bitch about my union which I despise, but I’ll take them over the administration any day… the administration which is corrupt, greedy, and inefficient. At this rate, I am so tempted to leave academia and teaching and go into private research… heck, because of my computational physics skills, I’ve been approached by headhunters at quantitative finance/banking organizations…

    but hey, we got people like quincy and stacy who say with a straight face that our country is being brought to its knees by teachers… I have to give it to the Republicans… they have managed to convince the middle class that it is their fellow middle class workers who are responsible for the economic crises facing this country.

  19. No, we are not coal miners or garment workers.

    All the cars in the teacher’s parking lot look like they’ve been purchased within the last five years.

    When September comes, my colleagues tell me about their vacations to Hawaii, to the rain forests of Costa Rica, to quaint little towns in Europe. Some even write their trips off on their taxes.

    I’ve listened to a lot of Hazel Dickens and Peter Seeger and they didn’t sing about people vacationing in Hawaii.

  20. Wow, Robert. That doesn’t jibe with my experience at all.
    Most teachers where I work – including myself- are parents of small children. We spend our summers with our kids. Our cars are messy and filled with cereal pieces, construction paper, and/or library books.

    As for the whole Wisconsin debacle, I think Gov. Walker should have taken the teacher concessions when the going was good. The teachers of Wisconsin agreed to pay cuts, pension cuts, and benefits cuts. He’s digging in his heels on collective bargaining for purely partisan purposes, and because he thinks he’s got the momentum of public opinion behind him.

    I find the whole thing to be a most cynical display of partisan cliches – on both sides.

  21. jab,

    You do realize that public employee pensions are literally the largest threat to fiscal solvency in the state of California, right? The state is on the hook for HALF A TRILLION dollars it can’t pay, and it is not the bankers’ fault, or the corporations’ fault. It’s the fault of public sector unions and the puppet politicians they’ve gotten elected.

    Of course, being the enlightened college professor, you’ve decided that anything I say cannot be factual because I’m one of those evil teabaggers. I only hope you hold your students to a higher intellectual standard than you’ve displayed here. Otherwise, I think you might be making about $60,000 too much in taxpayer money.

  22. “I find the whole thing to be a most cynical display of partisan cliches – on both sides.”

    Yeah, that’s a pretty good take on it.

  23. Robert and nana-
    You’re both right. I’m a 6th year teacher with a wife, house, and two children and I’m more like nana’s example.
    On the other hand, I’m familiar with single or married without children teachers who are more like Robert’s. I’ve also seen plenty of longtimers who are more like Robert’s example.

    It seems that you make less than many k-12 teachers. We have middle school teachers making 70+ with generous benefits.

  24. If I were living on my salary, or heaven forbid support a family, I’d be in dire straits. If I even had to put the kids on my medical, we’d lose 1/4 of my pay. I am fortunate that my husband works in the private sector (which is bouncing back by the looks of his [yippee!!] bonus this year), so we can have a nicer lifestyle. There are other factors in there.

  25. Robert Wright says:

    All the cars in the teacher’s parking lot look like they’ve been purchased within the last five years.

    How dare those greedy teachers spend their hard earned money on reliable transportation!! Those greedy union bastards.

    What an enlightening statement. I didn’t realize I was such a leech and drain on the taxpayers of the world when I decided to spend part of my salary on a new car. I thought it was because my wife’s nine and a half year old vehicle has 200K miles on it, or my 7 year old vehicle has over 100k miles on it. Silly me, I even thought that maybe when my daughter graduates in 2 years she could take the relatively new vehicle to college.

    Now I realize by accepting a paycheck I’m a drain on society, especially to those billionaires who feel they need to make even more profit on everything.

    You, sir, are giving ammuntion to the anti-teacher crowd with idiotic statements like the one you made above. Before assuming the worst, perhaps you investigate a little.

  26. Well Mike you could always see about a teaching gig in Milwaukee. I understand Milwaukee’s teachers do pretty well. $100,500 average in total compensation.

    See Mike? It’s not all about you. There are teachers who don’t drive a 7 year-old car and who do spend their annual three month vacation at some salubrious spot instead of around the homestead. If you’re willing to settle for what the state of Texas deems you’re worth then whose fault is that?

    To get back to some subject other then Mike, I think a lot of people are missing part of the bigger picture which is that in order to hang onto what they’ve gotten the legislators elected by the entire electorate have been forced to go on the lam to please a single constituency.

    That may not have repercussions at the next election but that’s hoping against the facts. There will be voters who remember that those legislators abandoned their jobs to focus on the issue crucial to one group. If you’re a member of that group then hooray but there are a lot more people who aren’t government employees then that are.

  27. Quincy…

    Then explain why Walker is exempting police/fire/correction officer unions? Oh right, they vote GOP.

    And you seem incapable of acknowledging that the teachers unions HAVE agreed to increasing their contributions to pensions, health care and CUTS in salary.

    The ONLY disagreement left is over his desire to crush the unions ability to collectively bargain.

  28. jab,

    Where have I defended Walker on anything? All I’m saying is public sector (not just teachers) unions shouldn’t be surprised that they’ve got themselves into the position of having politicians like Walker go after them, and hard.

    Walker is obviously playing politics here. He’s trying to break down a support of the Democrats whilst leaving in place a support of the Republicans.

    Also, where have I said the teachers in Wisconsin haven’t tried to make concessions? When I referenced the 0% contribution, I was talking about the benefits the teachers’ union had secured for its members before the current conflict as part of the explanation of why there is animosity towards the union.

    Now, despite the fact that they’ve attempted to compromise, I would still bet that the Wisconsin teachers’ union would prefer to see tax increases over benefit cuts. Is it wrong of them to want that? No. Their job is to get the most for their teachers, period. Should Wisconsin taxpayers view the union as their opposition? Yes.

    Coming to California, which is the budget mess I’m worried about, I don’t blame the teachers of California for the looming benefit crisis. I blame public employee union bosses (all of them) and politicians who put union demands above fiscal solvency. Teachers in California are stuck with their unions, and I won’t hold the behavior of the union against teachers who are forced to deal with them just to teach.

    Honestly, in California the unions that really piss me off are the law enforcement unions who push for more cops by supporting turning more things into crimes and putting more people in jail. That is the pure scumbaggery, if you ask me.

    Finally, jab, thanks for getting through an entire comment without hurling an insult. Much appreciated.

  29. Roger Sweeny says:


    Great comment. Especially the next to last paragraph. Yes, pure scumbaggery.

  30. Mike, I see nothing wrong with teachers being in a social class where the majority of them can purchase new cars. It just means they’re in the middle to upper-middle class. That’s probably how it should be.

    The unions I’ve worked for in the past were comprised of people who were in the lower class.

    When I see teachers’s unions using the rhetoric of the working class and distorting their history, that’s where I have the problem.

    Teachers’ unions, whether you’re for them or against them, are middle class unions.

    By the way, to see a list of retired California school employees who take home pensions greater than $100,000, check out this website:


  31. Simple solution, in two and a half parts:
    1) This one’s on the dollar bill: “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private.” Make employee compensation transparent by substitution of a transaction tax (sales tax) for income taxes (corporate and individual) and ban deferred compensation (pensions and benefits), and let employees buy the pension and health care they want.
    2) Dump State functions that markets perform better (education).
    2.5) Short of #2, mandate that all government schools (K-PhD) accept credit by exam for all courses required for graduation, license independent contractors to administer these exams for a fee to be negotiated by the student and the contractor, and let competition between Sylvan Learning Centers, the University of Phoenix, and the Kumon Institute drive the cost of a high school diploma or a college degree down to the cost of books and grading exams.

    Will it happen? Of course not. Not until this bus goes over the cliff. Legislators are at the very first step in dealing with their addiction to power and tax money. They’re at the first “I should quit smoking” or the first “I should lose weight” statement. That resolve will evaporate when a companion at the bar lights up or someone brings cupcakes to work. Next election, when the NEA thug threatens to subsidize your primary opponent, it will be all “What do you want, Mr. Uni-Serv?”

  32. Robert,

    I’ve never lived in California, but I’ve heard the cost of living is astronomical; that a modest 2 or 3 bedroom home can run hundreds of thousands of dollars. In that situation is a 100K pension all that unusual, or livable?

  33. Malcolm,

    Your assertion that the private sector does a better job at education is wrong; the CREDO study showed only 17% of charters perform better than local public schools; private schools operate under completely different conditions.

    Are you trying to repeat the lie enough in the hopes people start to believe it?

  34. Mike,

    $100,000 would be enough to live comfortably in the expensive parts of California for about 1.5-2 years. The link Robert provided was >$100,000 *annually*. Not astronomical given the cost of living, but pretty flush anyway.

  35. Regarding the pensions… no teacher should be making anywhere near 100,000 after they retire. When you retire, you are not working. Period. No one should be making 100,000 on the taxpayer’s dime when they aren’t working.
    For the standard career teacher, by the time you retire you should be clear of most debt. There should be no massive mortgage or other debt hanging over your head. If there is, you’re either stupid or, well, stupid (excepting those that have been faced with emergency medical expenses, etc). Its called planning for retirement.
    If the cost of living in an area is astronomical… don’t live there. My wife likes to watch the house hunting shows and I practically become spastic when the hunter mortgages themselves to the hilt for a 2 bedroom shack because its in a trendy neighborhood. Ridiculous.

    As for why Walker is not focusing on the public safety unions… there are a couple non-partisan reasons why. First off, they might just be too powerful for the governor to take on. He might not want to risk all by taking on everyone at once. When you have thousands of strikers protesting at the capital, you also don’t want to annoy the cops. Perhaps by making the changes with the non-safety unions first the opposition might soften when changes are proposed for everyone else.

  36. Supersub,

    You call people in debt stupid, but are you aware that a huge percentage of personal bankrupticies occur due to medical bills? And that the majority of those are from people who HAVE medical insurance?

    I guess they were “stupid” for getting sick in the US?

  37. Whoa, I REALLY need to drink some coffee before I try to spell big words!

  38. (Mike): “Your assertion that the private sector does a better job at education is wrong…
    Gerard Lassibile and Lucia Navarro Gomez,
    “Organization and Efficiency of Educational Systems: some empirical findings”
    __Comparative Education__, Vol. 36 #1, 2000, Feb. , pg. 16,
    “Furthermore, the regression results indicate that countries where private education is more widespread perform significantly better than countries where it is more limited. The result showing the private sector to be more efficient is similar to those found in other contexts with individual data (see, for example, Psucharopoulos, 1987; Jiminez, et. al, 1991). This finding should convince countries to reconsider policies that reduce the role of the private sector in the field of education”.

    Joshua Angrist
    “Randomized Trials and Quasi-Experiments in Education Research”
    __NBER Reporter__, summer, 2003.
    “One of the most controversial innovations highlighted by NCLB is school choice. In a recently published paper,(5) my collaborators and I studied what appears to be the largest school voucher program to date. This program provided over 125,000 pupils from poor neighborhoods in the country of Colombia with vouchers that covered approximately half the cost of private secondary school. Colombia is an especially interesting setting for testing the voucher concept because private secondary schooling in Colombia is a widely available and often inexpensive alternative to crowded public schools. (In Bogota, over half of secondary school students are in private schools.) Moreover, governments in many poor countries are increasingly likely to experiment with demand-side education finance programs, including vouchers.”
    “Although not a randomized trial, a key feature of our Colombia study is the exploitation of voucher lotteries as the basis for a quasi-experimental research design. Because demand for vouchers exceeded supply, the available vouchers were allocated by lottery in large cities. Our study compares voucher applicants who won a voucher in the lottery to those who lost. Since the lotteries used random assignment, losers provide a good control group for winners. A comparison of voucher winners and losers shows that three years after the lotteries were held, winners were 15 percentage points more likely to have attended private school and were about 10 percentage points more likely to have finished eighth grade, primarily because they were less likely to repeat grades. Lottery winners also scored 0.2 standard deviations higher on standardized tests. A follow-up study in progress shows that voucher winners also were more likely to apply to college. On balance, our study provides some of the strongest evidence to date for the possible benefits of demand-side financing of secondary schooling, at least in a developing country setting.(6)”

    (Mike): “ …private schools operate under completely different conditions.
    That’s sorta the point. Government schools must operate according to the law while independent schools must operate within the law. The difference makes a difference. Schools which cannot get rid of troublemakers cannot get rid of trouble.

    (Mike): “Are you trying to repeat the lie enough in the hopes people start to believe it?
    Yo’ momma.

  39. MiT-
    Quoting myself – “excepting those that have been faced with emergency medical expenses, etc”

    So, yeah, I realize the unfortunate results of serious medical needs and the costs of treatment. As long as the medical situation was not created by their own poor decisions (obesity, smoking etc), they’re not stupid, just unlucky.
    There are also a large percentage of people declaring bankruptcy because they bought 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom houses and continued to eat out every night, plus buying multiple cups of Starbucks each day. They are stupid.