Should teachers have a say in educational policymaking?
The political battle over teachers’ right to collectively bargain in Wisconsin really targets the fundamental question should teachers have a say in educational policymaking? Local school boards, county councils and state legislatures have traditionally held the power to initiate and shape educational policy. Teachers have held the right to bargain the terms and conditions of their employment and the right to at least engage in educational policy arenas through collective bargaining. However, collective bargaining has limits as governmental bodies possess a tremendous amount of legislative power. Unions for the most part do not have counterbalancing powers.
Since teachers’ primary avenue to shape educational policy is through the collective bargaining unit, access to legislators is pivotal. Interactions with legislators are direct entry points to the primary policymaking domain–the governor’s office. Similar to the 1970s, governors are currently central policy initiators when it comes to policies that impact education. In 1973, educational advocacy groups held these perceptions when it came to influencing educational policies:
1. The governor’s office is the key access point to the policymaking system.
2. Educational interests group’s most potent strategy in influencing the policymaking process is their ability to make recommendations concerning educational policy modifications based on data about the needs of education.
3. Interest group memberships will maintain pressure on their legislative representatives to achieve organizational objectives concerning educational legislation.
Governors’ influences and dominance within policy arenas depends on their veto power, relationships with legislators and abilities to make deals within the legislative body. In Wisconsin, leaders from the two largest unions have maintained pressure on Gov. Scott Walker. Walker has shown his disinterest in brokering deals with legislators to pass legislation which has in turn limited his power. His ability to pass his agenda is also limited by Wisconsin’s strong union support and the narrow Republican majority in the Senate. Walker’s political mishaps have further fueled Wisconsin teachers to mobilize and voice their will to maintain their rights to collectively bargain and influence educational policy arenas. In short, politics matter and Gov. Walker is not very good at playing politics.
However, Wisconsin’s significant state-union dispute has diverted much attention away from Ohio. Last week, the Ohio Senate passed a bill that restricted unions to collectively bargain. The legislation would restrict collective bargaining rights of 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees. The bill would also ban strikes. The measure narrowly passed the Senate in a 17-16 vote.
The main political differences between Ohio and Wisconsin are apparent. Republicans hold a 2-1 majority in the Ohio Senate. This has allowed the Republicans to make deals and offer head committee positions to specific legislators in exchange for their support on the bargaining bill. It also has also allowed them flexibility to shift memberships in two committees to ensure they had the votes to pass the bill. Furthermore, Gov. John Kasich’s experience as a former congressman proved beneficial as he relied on previous relationships to garner support for his bill. Finally, Ohio’s union membership has significantly declined and is not as strong as Wisconsin’s membership.
Although Ohio Senate leaders have imposed legislation to eradicate teachers’ say in educational policymaking, the issue still has to pass the House of Representatives. There is also talk that if the bargaining bill passes the House then it will show up on the ballot in November for repeal. Regardless, governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have made it clear that they believe teachers should not shape educational policy. However, the current attacks on public sector unions during decline can serve as a prime motivation for a resurgence in teacher unionization efforts in protecting collective bargaining rights. As collective bargaining is still seen as a primary and legitimate way for educators to influence educational policies, legislators like the courageous Democratic state senators in Wisconsin are going to have to take political risks to support unions. Unfortunately, unions cannot maintain their rights without the help of legislators since governmental powers usurp unions’ influence.