Commentary Magazine


Topic: union reform

The Logic of Union Reform in Blue States

When the economy is stuck at around 8 percent unemployment for years heading into a presidential election, and the incumbent is desperately avoiding questions about a foreign policy fiasco, most other issues are bound to fade from priority. And so the issue of education in America has duly taken a back seat this year. But that doesn’t mean the issue has been stagnant in the minds of Americans.

In fact, over the last couple of years we have seen a striking change take place in public opinion. The support for school choice and public union reform in places like Wisconsin and New Jersey have shown that even while school choice and voucher programs have yet to prove themselves a solution to the ailing American education system, the support for school reform even in blue states and among pro-union parts of the country signify a willingness to break with tradition on the part of frustrated parents. On that note, while education hasn’t been much a part of the election this year, Mitt Romney did include it in his closing argument, delivered in Wisconsin today:

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When the economy is stuck at around 8 percent unemployment for years heading into a presidential election, and the incumbent is desperately avoiding questions about a foreign policy fiasco, most other issues are bound to fade from priority. And so the issue of education in America has duly taken a back seat this year. But that doesn’t mean the issue has been stagnant in the minds of Americans.

In fact, over the last couple of years we have seen a striking change take place in public opinion. The support for school choice and public union reform in places like Wisconsin and New Jersey have shown that even while school choice and voucher programs have yet to prove themselves a solution to the ailing American education system, the support for school reform even in blue states and among pro-union parts of the country signify a willingness to break with tradition on the part of frustrated parents. On that note, while education hasn’t been much a part of the election this year, Mitt Romney did include it in his closing argument, delivered in Wisconsin today:

You know that if the President is re-elected, he will say every good thing he can about education, but in the final analysis, he will do what his largest campaign supporters–the public-sector unions–insist upon. And your kids will have the same schools with the same results.

When I am president, I will be a voice of the children and their parents. There is no union for the PTA. I will give parents the information they need to know if their school is failing, and the choice they need to pick the school where their child can succeed.

The willingness of normally pro-union states and voters to support union restrictions has taken some by surprise. But it shouldn’t. The truth is, it’s only logical that in states like New Jersey, where union power has been unchallenged for decades while property owners foot the bill for exorbitant union benefits, desire for true reform would begin to pick up grassroots momentum.

In New Jersey, where I covered education earlier in my career, it was common for schools to cut tutoring programs and sports teams, and otherwise deprive students of various educational opportunities because the teacher and administrator contracts were set in stone. Thanks to collective bargaining between pro-union liberal governors and the unions, school budgets were set in such a way that the only thing protected from budget cuts were union-brokered salaries and benefits.

It makes sense, then, that in such an atmosphere—where it’s not an exaggeration to say that the unions were slowly killing the state’s education system—parents finally said: Enough.

This creates one of the country’s most promising opportunities for bipartisanship: Republican governors not beholden to the unions team up with more liberal voters to reform a system desperately in need of it. And even without proof that school choice will fix education, parents also seem to be out of patience with their exclusion from their child’s educational choices. Without school choice, poor kids are tethered to poor school systems, creating what reform advocates call the civil rights challenge of this generation.

It is also for this reason that Romney hasn’t focused too much on education. It is big government, top-down programs that have failed students time and again. It is the governors and other local leaders who are better able to accurately assess their students’ needs and work with the public to bring about change. Beyond federal support for programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—which President Obama sought to end, depriving many D.C.-area minority students of an educational and socioeconomic lifeline—a conservative approach to education reform takes place far from the know-it-all reaches of the federal bureaucracy.

Forcing children to make sacrifices to support six-figure salaries of overpaid—and in some cases, unnecessary—administrators is a shameful approach to public policy. And the fact that parents, and even many teachers, recognize this is why conservative politicians feel confident enough to make this argument in blue states.

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