The top lawyer for the National Education Association — the teachers union — once said, “It is not because we care about children, and it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. The NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power.”
What we did years ago in Wisconsin was transfer power from the big government special interests into the hands of hardworking taxpayers and the people they elected at the state and local levels. The union bosses in Wisconsin and across the country could not let that happen, so they sent thousands of protesters to occupy my state Capitol.
At one point, the number of people inside the state Capitol and around the grounds hit 100,000. There were death threats against me, my family (one even said that they would gut my wife like a deer), our administration and Republican state lawmakers. In other jurisdictions, intimidation worked, and they were pulling out all the stops to protect their power in Wisconsin.
The Badger State was more than just a political battleground. We are the home of former governor and U.S. Sen. Robert LaFollette, hero of the Progressive Party, with a shrine to him in the rotunda. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was formed out of the Wisconsin State Employees Association in the capital city of Madison. Wisconsin was the first state to grant public employees the ability to bargain collectively.
On my first day in office as governor of Wisconsin, we moved the inaugural ceremony from the traditional east wing of the Capitol to avoid standing in front of the statue of LaFollette. Soon after, we introduced legislation to counter the expensive entitlement of collective bargaining, take on the union bosses, put taxpayers back in charge, and give public servants the freedom to choose if they wanted to be in a union or not.
In the end, the union bosses would have given us almost anything to keep automatic dues deductions. For them, it was all about power. Previously, they didn’t have to ask for union dues each month. They wanted the government to force it.
Years have passed since the protests and riots in and around the Wisconsin State Capitol. Thankfully, our commonsense conservative reforms are still working with more than $15 billion worth of savings to state and local taxpayers. More importantly, schools and local governments can staff based on merit and pay based on performance. That means they can put the best and the brightest into the classroom.
America needs our positive reforms in other states and jurisdictions. Illinois, and specifically Chicago, are two examples of places that desperately need help.
Even before COVID-19, reading scores were bad for students in Chicago. They dropped by 30% from 2019. Sadly, only 11% of Black students and 17% of Hispanic students could read at grade level in 2021.
Defenders of the failing system claim that they need more funding to improve outcomes. But the per-pupil spending, when including all costs, is nearly $30,000, compared with $20,000 four years ago.
A report by Wirepoints found that more than 30 schools in Illinois failed to have even one student reading at grade level. Most of those schools were in the Chicago Public Schools District. The same report found that more than 50 schools in the Land of Lincoln failed to have any students doing math at grade level. Again, most of them were in Chicago.
Not surprisingly, Illinois has some of the most union-friendly collective bargaining laws in the nation. Foolishly, they allow teachers to strike. That, along with incredible political and lobbying power, explains why Chicago teachers are some of the highest paid in the country, yet they’ve gone on strike five times in the past 10 years and many more times in the past.
At the height of efforts to get students back in the classroom, the Chicago Teachers Union leaders fought efforts to return, saying it was unsafe.
One of those union bosses is Sarah Chambers. As the union was threatening to go on strike, she posted this on social media: “Hearing of an educator revolution happening. Tons of members are emailing their admin: I’ll be asserting my right to continue to work in a safe remote environment on January 4th, 2021. I have signed the pledge, along with over 8,000+ union educators to continue to work remotely.”
Later that day, Ms. Chambers posted a picture of herself in Puerto Rico with the caption: “We have the whole pool to ourselves. Then, we are going to old San Juan to get some yummy seafood mofongo.” What a hypocrite.
As a top union lawyer once said, labor bosses care more about maintaining their grip on power than the quality of education received by children in the classroom. All the more reason to fund students, not systems.
• Scott Walker is president of Young America’s Foundation and served as the 45th governor of Wisconsin from 2011 to 2019.