With all the flak directed at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce this year it is surprising that Wisconsin Education Association Council gets barely a mention.
WEAC is riding high right now because its investment has paid off; WEAC now controls both houses of the Legislature and the executive branch.
It will get its payback. The qualified economic offer, or Q.E.O., is a dead duck. The Q.E.O. says school districts can offer a 3.8 percent compensation package to teachers and they got to take it. Watch the unions take all that pent-up anger and hit for much fatter contracts in the coming recessionary economy.
Of course, WEAC runs those high-minded "great schools" ads during sporting events to cloak itself as the champion of quality education. But here in Madison, at least, the teachers union is all about getting more butter for its bread.
So, it will be interesting to see how hard WEAC and its Milwaukee affiliate fight reforms - because the Milwaukee public schools are in bad need of reform. I write this because all of us should truly care about Milwaukee's schools. If those schools continue to fail, Milwaukee itself will fail, will drop back into the third tier of cities, will become another Detroit, Buffalo or Youngstown - losing population, losing relevance.
Graduation? What's that?
The Milwaukee Schools are a failure by any measure. Ninety-four of the 100 largest school districts in the country have higher graduation rates than Milwaukee, where the graduation rate is 45%, according to a study by the Manhattan Institute.
That compares with 58% in Philadelphia, 63% in New Orleans and 50% in Chicago for the class of 2003, the most recent year for which data was available.
Higher taxes, Paul Soglin's drug of choice, has been tried.
- Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a good Democrat, excoriated the school system's spendthrift ways. In late October, he issued a statement saying:
"The Milwaukee Public School Board ... is once again prepared to slam Milwaukee taxpayers with a double digit property tax increase ... ramming through a 2009 tax increase of 14.6%. For tax years 2006-2009 (the district) has increased tax levy spending by $73.7 million. That's an astonishing 34.4% increase. In that same period of time, the City of Milwaukee levy has increased 11.9%."
- Like General Motors, Milwaukee Public Schools retirees and part-time employees earn "considerably more generous benefit levels" than other groups, according to a major consultant's report to the School Board.
The chairman of the district's budget committee said MPS "is dependent on the turnover of teachers" to keep actual payment to teachers for salary and benefits down and keep the system financially solvent.
- Milwaukee schools threw $102 million to remodel buildings that now stand vacant. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found, "Many of the schools that got new classrooms and other improvements also have seen a decline in student test scores."
Then there is the teachers union's best friend, Charlene Hardin. She is the Milwaukee school board member who blew off a national school safety conference to which taxpayers sent her in Philadelphia in July. On other recent out-of-state trips, Hardin stayed in $400-per-night rooms, rented a car for two days for $400 and was fined nearly $300 by one hotel for refusing to abide by its no-smoking rule. She sent the bill to the school district.
As the Journal-Sentinel's Patrick McIlerhan records:
Hardin voted against several attempts to prune the board's generous health perks, and she voted in 2003 for an infamous 33% board pay raise, unanimously reversed after parents protested. Early on, she was part of an effort to cut all ties between MPS and a school improvement group put together by the business community.
Those awful business people! McIlerhan continues:
(Hardin) is generous on behalf of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. The union has been a chief supporter in Hardin's three board elections.
Barrett and the current governor are more than aware of MPS and its dysfunctionality. They want a financial review of the district before they decide where they stand on how the school district is run and funded.
The irony is that the study is being financed by a consortium of business interests through The Greater Milwaukee Foundation, including The Helen Bader Foundation, Northwestern Mutual, M&I, Bradley, Betty Brinn, Argosy, Herzfeld, Weiss Family and Zilber foundations. This business involvement has Ed Garvey pacing the floor. Check the fine print, he urges.
Fiddling with funding mechanisms will only make the spoils that much more attractive. The problem starts with the union me-first mentality.
"The biggest plague on MPS is it's always been adults' interests being placed ahead of children's," former MPS board member Joe Danneker told the Journal-Sentinel.
Break it up and start over
That fact has not escaped State Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield.
The fact of the matter is that, over time, MPS evolved into a system to provide jobs for adults instead of one that focused on educating students.
Because of strong union contracts, poor performers in the ranks of administrators and teachers simply are shuttled off to different schools, not fired, and their poor performance shifts to another group of students.
The former Elmbrook school board member intends to introduce legislation to break MPS into 8 separate school districts, each with its own board of education.
Under my proposal, parents will be presented with opportunities to serve on new school boards, allowing them to take a personal stake in the quality of these new systems. By decentralizing the administration of public schools, my proposal will make it easier for parents to see the level of quality in the education of their kids and to react when improvement is needed.
Talk about déjà vu all over again! Ten years ago Tommy Thompson proposed the same thing. Think about how much farther along Milwaukee would be today if all the usual apologists for the teachers union had not set up an unearthly howl.
No wonder Jonah Goldberg of National Review called teachers unions, "arguably the single worst mainstream institution in our country today... No group is more committed to putting ideological blather and self-interest before the public good."
Put this on your tree!
Cate Zeuske is one of the most delightful people it has been my privilege to know over the years. Former state legislator, state treasurer and revenue secretary, Cate has taken on a number of worthy causes over the years, including efforts to save Wisconsin's iconic old barns.
She is also promoting sale of Wisconsin State Capitol Christmas tree ornaments. Pictured is this year's, the fifth edition. These unique decorations, complete with case, are $16. All of the proceeds from the sale of the ornaments are donated to the Wisconsin State Capitol Restoration Fund. They are available at a handful of specialty commercial outlets around town and the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum, the Veterans Museum on the Square, and Monona Terrace.