It’s more than a little ironic that at the same moment in history that people in a dozen Middle East countries are speaking out against repression and toppling autocratic leaders, conservative lawmakers in a dozen U.S. states are seeking to enact repressive measures against teachers and other public employees under the guise of balancing budgets. The nation’s attention has been focused in particular on Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker can’t take yes for an answer. Public employee unions have agreed to all the financial concessions he has demanded, but he and his Republican colleagues in the legislature won’t be satisfied unless they strip collective bargaining rights from the unions, rendering them essentially powerless. Similar changes are proposed in other states.
Sensing that this battle is a defining moment in labor relations, Wisconsin teachers and other public employees have mounted a sustained resistance to the governor’s plan. I think it’s also a defining moment in education. In an era when more and more of the decisions about what happens in the classroom are already being made in a top-down fashion, often without consulting teachers, the loss of collective bargaining rights could mean the end of academic freedom in many districts.
Collective bargaining at its best – an opportunity for the stakeholders in an enterprise to sit down and reason together – is an apt metaphor for the educational process. We need more collective bargaining in education, not less: not only between “labor” and “management” but also between the community and the school – and especially between teachers and students. Classrooms function best when the ends, the means, the meanings, and the outcomes are negotiated, with all students having a role, rather than teacher-imposed. Teachers who feel empowered to participate in decisions affecting their schools and fields are more likely to empower their students to become active participants and decision-makers.
There’s a lot at stake in the current controversy in Wisconsin. Will it be a Middle East moment for American education?