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Q&A: A teacher union struggles for relevance on a hostile political landscape
Kim Schroeder is president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Milwaukee has stood at ground zero of education reform battles since at least 1990, when the city became one of the first of two to experiment with vouchers for private schools. Today, roughly 26,000 Milwaukee students now use vouchers to enroll at private schools, while about 78,000 remain in the public school system.

Scott Walkers election as governor in 2010 put Milwaukee back in the spotlight for radical education reform. Over raucous protests at the state capitol, the new GOP governor, and current presidential candidate, enacted his signature Act 10 legislation, which took on public employee unions, including those of teachers, stripping away most collective bargaining rights. Bitter battles followed, including efforts to recall Walker. He survived three elections in the past five years.

Now, the Milwaukee school system is again on the hot seat, as the state prepares to take control of failing city schools, following the model of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, which took over and chartered almost all public schools in the Crescent City.

What happens in Wisconsin could have national implications, as teacher unions across the country are now playing defense. State leaders on the left, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York, and the right, like Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Walker, are pushing hard to strip the power of unions and privatize, or at least charter-ize, schools.

Kim Schroeder, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Association, the local NEA affiliate, says the union has struggled to respond to the adverse climate and has had to rethink how it relates to teachers, policy makers and the general public. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How should parents and taxpayers think of the role of teacher unions in the public education?

Teacher unions are fighting to make sure that all students, regardless of their income, race, gender or social economic status, get the opportunities and support to learn and succeed. Thats our role. We represent the people in the classroom who are there every single day.

So this raises the question of the critiques recently made by Gov. Cuomo in New York and Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey, both of whom have in very similar terms attacked teachers unions and argued that they do not represent kids, but rather the they only represent the job security and income of the teachers.

Obviously, we vehemently disagree with those comments, especially from Christie, but also from Cuomo. They have attacked in a very ugly and threatening way the expertise and professionalism of hundreds of thousands of professional educators. Teachers unions are made of the people who work with the students. The teachers are the best equipped to stand up for the students. They see what happens in the classroom. They are the best ones to make the school and classroom decisions that ensure success.

The membership of the National Education Association, which you are affiliated with, has dropped over 230,000 members in the past four years. Whats causing this decline?

There are fewer public school jobs with the increase in private charters, takeovers of major city school districts. Places like Wisconsin have also lost collective bargaining, which has presented at challenge to us here.

Is Wisconsin a unique situation, or have others seen similar assaults on unions? Is this an oddity or a canary in the coal mine?

Wisconsin is unfortunately not an oddity. Wisconsin is unusual because it happened all at one time, with cuts to public education funding and the attack on collective bargaining. But we are also seeing it in Indiana and Michigan and Missouri. We saw it in New Orleans with the recovery school district, where almost the entire city shifted over to charter schools. There is a concerted effort to end public school as we know it.

What is Act 10 and how has it affected teaching in Wisconsin?

The legislation eliminates collective bargaining of anything at all except base wages. That means contracts can be written on a Post-it Note. Anything about working conditions, safety in the classroom, class size, hours spent teaching, health insurance can no longer officially be part of collective bargaining. It also required teachers to pay 5.8 percent of their salaries toward the pension system, and they have to pay at least 12 percent of their health care premium costs. Average teachers took an immediate $8,000 to $10,000 hit on their take home pay.

What has the impact been on the ground?

We lost in the first year hundreds upon hundreds of teachers who retired under the contract before the law changed. We lost a lot of high-quality, experienced teachers. And we are having a hard time attracting and holding new quality teachers. If a district doesnt give you step increases [pay increases based on years served] and you only get cost of living, then 30 years into your career, you will have the same exact buying power as you did in your first year.

But districts could compete for quality teachers and offer step increases to teachers in districts that were less accommodating?

That is exactly right. We are seeing that. We are starting to see free agency of teachers moving around. Its hurting school districts because a teacher in the classroom you want to know the families, brothers and sisters, the community. Now we are seeing people moving around. That transience is not effective for a quality classroom teacher. Teaching is partly about building relationships.

In practical terms what can the union do for members now that so much has been stripped away? Why should a teacher belong?

Act 10 caused us to internally reconsider what we have been doing. Since collective bargaining is basically gone, we cant rely on that. So we opened a teaching and learning center, run by teachers, offering professional development, help with licensure, continuing college credit at reduced cost. If you want to be your best in the profession, you need to be a member so you can have access to these benefits. Its been very helpful not only getting new members, but helping them grow. So weve expanded what we are about.

What about in the trenches, influencing policy at the district level?

Now we have to use different tactics to get there. Instead of sitting at a table and saying, We have too many meetings in the school day and its cutting into our student contact time, instead of doing that in a contract negotiation, we turn 400 to 500 people out at a school board meeting, including parents and students. Its made us go back to more old school tactics, and organizing.

You got kicked out of the smoke-filled room.

Exactly. I dont think that was the plan of our opponents with Act 10, but in some ways its made us stronger. So instead of having automatic 100 percent membership, we are at 70 percent, and those 70 percent are more active, because theyve had to think and make a decision joining. That makes you look at your values and you are that much more likely to be involved. We have a more active base than weve had in 30 years.

I understand that statewide, union membership has plunged over 50 percent.

I ran our membership campaign for the last four years as vice president. Im now on the state board as Milwaukee president. Were working with the state to help some of the other locations come up with membership plans, and have come up with messaging that will help them improve. If you dont change how you are doing things, if you dont offer things like the teaching and learning opportunities, if its still about collective bargaining, obviously there is no reason to belong. But we are more than that, and we have to be more than that. No one ever entered the profession so they could join a teachers union.