BOISE, Idaho – Millions of voters will go to the polls this year to choose between a more performance-based, accountable approach to public education, and the failed system supported by Big Labor.
In Michigan, North Dakota and Idaho, state teachers unions are working to convince voters to overturn long-overdue collective bargaining limits, school spending reforms, teacher and school accountability measures, and other changes that have been good for students but bad for unions.
In Idaho, state officials eliminated early retirement bonuses and phased out teacher tenure, among other sweeping changes. Lawmakers in North Dakota want to give bonuses to top-performing teachers and eliminate continuing teacher contracts - a form of tenure.
The Michigan legislature granted emergency financial managers authority to restructure school finances and trash expensive union contracts in districts with chronic budget problems.
In each state, teachers unions are dialing up the propaganda as members push petitions to put these changes up for public votes. It’s Big Labor’s last-grasp attempt to regain control over public education by restoring the union-first mentality that has produced mediocre academic results and a steady flow of tax dollars into union coffers for decades.
Will union bosses be able to convince taxpayers to turn back the clock, or will the public stand by elected leaders who are making the difficult, necessary reforms that will improve education for our nation’s students?
It’s all on the line in Idaho.
Union officials in Idaho collected over 74,000 signatures for each of three referendums that would reverse important education reform bills adopted in 2011.
Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 would repeal new laws -- promoted by Gov. Butch Otter and state Superintendent Tom Luna -- that end tenure protections for teachers, greatly reduce the scope of collective bargaining for teachers, eliminate seniority as a factor in layoffs, and institute merit pay for effective teachers, according to ballotpedia.org.
Proposition 3 would reverse accessibility to online learning and technology included in Idaho’s Students Come First reforms.
The Idaho reforms drew heated criticism from the state’s teachers unions, because they demolished key aspects of the old system that prioritized the union over students.
Angry protestors defiled Superintendent Luna’s vehicle and heckled his elderly mother during the legislative debates on the reforms, which were ultimately passed last spring. In April 2011, the Idaho Education Association, the statewide teachers union, challenged the constitutionality of the laws, specifically those clipping collective bargaining privileges.
District Court Judge Timothy Hansen ruled in September that the legislation’s limits on collective bargaining are “both reasonable and necessary to the legitimate purposes furthered by SB 1108 (the collective bargaining bill)."
“ … (O)ne of those purposes is returning decision-making power to local school boards,” Hansen wrote in his decision.
Since the ruling, officials from the National Education Association and its Idaho affiliates have dumped significant cash into the referendum effort, paying signature collectors and running ads attacking Students Come First.
Last June the Idaho Secretary of State determined there were enough valid signatures to put the propositions on the November ballot.
Despite the initial court victory, Gov. Otter and local education reformers “realize this issue and the fate of Students Come First will remain in the courts – including the court of public opinion,” Otter told the Idaho Press.
“Superintendent Luna and I are confident that Idaho citizens understand what’s at stake,” he said.
Michigan's managers on the ballot:
In Michigan, an emergency financial manager law adopted by lawmakers last year gives Gov. Rick Snyder the authority to send state-sponsored agents to run struggling school districts that have repeatedly failed to manage their budgets under the weight of enormous labor costs.
The managers have the legal authority to make unilateral staffing decisions, and to restructure school budgets to direct more tax dollars into the classroom. If necessary, EFMs have the authority to void union contracts to help save scarce dollars for schools.
In other words, EFMs can impose the necessary changes that were impossible through collective bargaining, because union officials in struggling districts would routinely refuse to accept concessions.
"For too long in this state, we've avoided making the tough decisions," Snyder said when he signed the EFM law last March, according to Mlive.com. "But waiting limits options and makes the solutions much more painful."
Like union officials in Idaho, leaders of the Michigan Education Association are pushing a lawsuit to challenge the state constitutionality of the EFM law. Gov. Snyder has also requested that the law be reviewed by the Michigan Supreme Court.
In February Stand Up for Democracy, a group supported by the MEA, delivered over 200,000 petition signatures to state officials, presumably meeting the 162,000 signature threshold to put the EFM law on the November ballot.
State officials are expected to determine within days whether there are enough valid signatures to put the question on the ballot. If there are, then the law will be suspended until after the November election, taking away the governor’s power to help struggling schools and local governments avoid financial catastrophe.
Petitions circulating in South Dakota:
Union officials in South Dakota recently launched a petition drive to put education reforms adopted this year to a public vote during the November election.
The effort targets House Bill 1234, signed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard this month, which phases out tenure, makes teacher evaluations standard and mandatory, introduces annual bonuses for top teachers, and provides extra pay for math and science teachers, according to media reports.
“This bill will invest $15 million a year in teacher pay, with lots of local control as to how the dollars are spent to advance student achievement,” Daugaard said in a recent press release.
The South Dakota Education Association, the statewide teachers union, is collecting signatures to block the reforms because HB 1234 threatens the union’s system for public education, which treats educators as unmovable, interchangeable parts with equal value.
The bill injects accountability into the classroom by standardizing evaluations and phasing out protections that have allowed poor performing and mediocre teachers to skate through their careers.
Like voters in Idaho and Michigan, South Dakota’s citizens will likely have the final say on whether they prefer the union’s self-serving template for public instruction, or whether they will reaffirm their support for courageous lawmakers who are embarking on a new course that finally makes students the top priority.