Is Wisconsin Really About the Kids?

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 4:24 PM EST

Mike Konczal points to this as the most interesting passage from Wisconson Gov. Scott Walker's telephone conversation with the fake David Koch:

I had all my cabinet over to the residence for dinner. Talked about what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, we had already kind of doped plans up, but it was kind of a last hurrah, before we dropped the bomb and I stood up and I pulled out a, a picture of Ronald Reagan and I said you know this may seem a little melodramatic but ... when he fired the air traffic controllers and, I said, to me that moment was more important than just for labor relations and or even the federal budget, that was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism because from that point forward the soviets and the communists knew that Ronald Regan wasn’t a pushover....

Mike comments:

When the true believers get together and talk openly, they don’t talk about this being about the budget, or getting innovative school practices in place, or whatever. It’s about showing their enemies that they mean business and aren’t pushovers. He believes that by smashing one you can smash them all. And he believes he is the first domino to move.

Quite so. Which brings to mind the pro-Walker argument currently making the rounds over at Modeled Behavior: namely that, as Karl Smith puts it, "to the extent public sector unions matter at all, it's because they stand in the way of educational reform." Adam Ozimek expands on this a bit:

Do I really have to run down the litany of bad policies unions have fought to keep, and good policies they’ve fought against in education reform? A clear indicator of how bad they’ve been is that the most anyone will say in their defense on education reform is that “well, some unions are embracing reform now in some places!”

I think I would have been more open to this argument a year or two ago, but I'm less sure now. First, because it's obvious that guys like Walker couldn't care less about ed reforms. As Mike says, in private Walker makes it clear that his union busting efforts are mostly designed to show that he's a tough guy, not to hasten ed reforms that will help Wisconsin's kids. 

More importantly, though, I've simply become less convinced about the value of all the ed reforms that periodically capture the hearts of the Beltway chattering classes. I'm generally in favor of things like charter schools and disciplinary reforms that make it slightly easier to fire bad teachers, but even if they're worthwhile on their own merits there's not an awful lot of evidence that these things actually improve the overall quality of the educational system. It's not that there's no evidence to support these kinds of reforms, just that the evidence is thin and contradictory every time I look at it. Test scores haven't dropped over the past 30 years. Other countries largely haven't leapfrogged us during the same period. High-stakes testing doesn't appear to have a big impact. Charter schools aren't unquestionably superior to equivalent public schools. Merit pay might work but it might not. The presence or absence of teachers unions doesn't seem to have much effect on educational outcomes. For more on this, try reading Joanne Barken's contrarian take on the ed reform community in the winter issue of Dissent.

I'm not trying to stake out some kind of maximal position here. There is some evidence in favor of some of these reforms, and I support the idea of experimenting to find out what works and what doesn't. I'd also like to see teachers unions lighten up on some of this stuff, so to some extent I agree with Karl and Adam. Still, the overall evidence that teachers unions are our biggest impediment to a nation of young geniuses is pretty weak. If that's your main reason to oppose public sector unions, I think you probably need a better case.