The head of the nation’s largest labor union says Republican efforts to restrain the power of unions has produced a middle-class backlash across the country that could cost Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other GOP politicians their jobs.
National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel told editors and reporters at The Washington Times that Mr. Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and other Republican politicians who have moved to rein in the bargaining power of teachers, firefighters and other public employees instead will galvanize working men and women nationwide. Such a movement is already under way in Wisconsin, where a week-old petition drive to recall Mr. Walker has garnered more than 100,000 signatures.
Mr. Van Roekel said the initiative has a good chance of succeeding. He noted the recent voter repeal of Ohio’s law limiting collective bargaining rights of public employees as proof that a major fight is brewing.
“It goes way beyond labor unions,” he said. “It was the people who said, ‘Wait a minute, the idea that [public employees] don’t have a voice, that teachers couldn’t advocate for class sizes or any other program that benefits students, … people just said you went too far.’ I think they sent a very clear message. You cannot turn your back on the middle class.”
Mr. Van Roekel, whose politically potent union represents more than 3.2 million teachers and has long been an anchor of the Democratic Party electoral base, said the Occupy Wall Street movement has brought to the forefront the disconnect between the wealthy and the working class, providing another example of average Americans standing up against what they view as a system rigged for the rich.
“It’s interesting to see where this is going. I think [the Occupy demonstrators] have changed the debate,” he said. “Can you run our system of government and have no middle class?”
As that debate plays out in states and cities across the country, lawmakers on Capitol Hill struggle to pass a comprehensive education reform package to replace the decade-old No Child Left Behind Act. While Mr. Van Roekel said his members desperately want change and feel shackled by the high-stakes standardized testing mandated under the education law, he isn’t holding out much hope that sweeping legislation can be enacted before the 2012 presidential election.
“I think if it was going to be done, they would’ve had to do it by now,” he said. “Not only is  a presidential election year, but in Congress right now, the partisan divide is so strong that it’s really hard to get anyone to agree on anything.”
He decried Congress’ inability to compromise, but said it’s vitally important that lawmakers “get it right” this time rather than settle on another flawed bill.
With congressional action unlikely, Mr. Van Roekel said, he backs the Education Department’s plan to grant waivers from No Child Left Behind to states that submit their own detailed school reform plans. The waiver system was announced by Education Secretary Arne Duncan over the summer, and represents the Obama administration’s “Plan B” to skirt the unpopular federal education law.
One reform idea floated by Republicans and others involves changing the definition of “effective teachers,” loosening restrictions on who can instruct in the classroom. Some argue that an experienced mathematician, for example, shouldn’t have to obtain a separate degree to become a teacher.
Mr. Van Roekel dismissed that idea as irresponsible.
The power of the teachers unions, many reformers argue, is the single biggest reason major changes have come so slowly to the U.S. education system.
Mr. Van Roekel strongly disagrees.
“I take it as a personal insult when people believe that anyone with a degree in math can do what I do in the classroom,” he said, referencing his 23-year career as a math teacher.
But he said that not everyone with a teaching degree should remain in the classroom. He said it was important for local school districts to develop detailed plans of when and why they fire teachers. Instructors should be given the opportunity to improve, he said, but the process of removal for those who don’t should take “no longer than 12 months.”
Mr. Van Roekel said he strongly supports ridding the system of bad teachers, but also believes the profession’s overall reputation is too closely tied to the worst of the bunch.
“When everybody focuses on whatever percentage they think are bad teachers and need to leave, the rest of them feel like, ‘What did I do?’” he said. “Pick a number. Do you think 5 percent are terrible? Then there’s 95 percent who aren’t. So quit beating them up.”
For the past 30 years, Mr. Van Roekel said, the American education system and the teachers within it have gone from being viewed as a key to the solution to technological and economic challenges to being seen as a problem in and of themselves. He said lawmakers and others need “to get back to not condemning the system” as a whole and instead find ways to fix it.
Specific flaws within the system, he said, have degraded American schools and perpetuated problems such as unacceptably high dropout rates.
“It’s not a system that’s all bad. It is a system that, the way it’s designed, does not deliver for a significant group of students,” Mr. Van Roekel said. “We’ve designed an education system that will graduate about 75 percent of our students, unless you’re African-American or Hispanic, then it’s about 50 percent. I just think that’s wrong.”