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Monday, February 21, 2011

In Wisconsin, the future of public education is at stake


by Sara Jerving

Momentum continues a week into the protests in Wisconsin, as the capital city’s public schools were closed for the fourth day and protestors prepare for the reconvening of the State's Assembly.

Demonstrations against governor Scott Walker’s proposed bill to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees reached a peak level of some 80,000 Saturday, and included a counter Tea Party rally with a few thousand people. The night before, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. addressed a crowd of several thousand, telling them that they were living a ‘Martin Luther King moment’.

Protesters outside the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin over the weekend. What has become clear to the protestors over the last week is that beyond an assault on unions; Walker's bill is part of a wider attack on working families and public education. According to a statement released Sunday by the Teachers Assistants Association TAA, one of the primary organizers of the protests on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus, “The Assembly is expected to pass the union-busting budget repair bill, even as tens of thousands of people demonstrate against the anti-worker provisions in the bill. “

The State Democratic Senators who left the state last week in boycott of Republican attempts to hurriedly push through the bill, still remain in Illinois. The Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald indicated that the Senate will meet Tuesday to pass non-fiscal measures, which can be done without the Senate Democrats, putting additional pressure on the Democrats to return to Wisconsin.

What has become clear to the protestors over the last week is that beyond an assault on unions; Walker's bill is part of a wider attack on working families and public education.

"The second reason that this fight matters is the future of public education,” The Nation’s Chris Hayes said. “What's driving it is the ultimate aim of permanently scrapping the model of public education that has sustained this country for years. Teachers unions are the stewards of preserving public education, which is the core element of our civil life.”

Walker’s track record illustrates his lack of support for public education. Before he was governor, he was the executive of Milwaukee County where the nation’s first mass-scale private school voucher experiment was implemented. He then campaigned for governor on expanding these vouchers, Hayes said.

Under the widely disputed bill, local police, fire and state patrol would retain their collective bargaining rights, unions that generally supported Walker during his campaign. Teachers unions, who sided with Democrats in last fall’s election, and other public workers would lose that process.

The proposed bill, according to Walker, is intended to balance the state’s budget and avoid layoffs. But despite an offer by public workers to give financial concessions instead of dropping collective bargaining, the governor refuses to drop the plan.

Democratic State Senator Jon Erpenbach said in a statement this weekend that the offer made by public workers was "a legitimate and serious offer on the table from local, state and school public employees that balances Gov. Walker's budget."

The denial of this offer shows that "Gov. Walker's only target is the destruction of collective bargaining rights and not solving the state's budget," Erpenbach said.

Teaching assistants have planned a ‘teach-out’ for Tuesday to permit their students to join them at the Capitol building to protest the Assembly’s meeting. They also helped organize ‘teach-ins’ over the weekend at the campus’s main library to further explain to students how this bill will affect them.

Graduate student assistants teach 85 percent of discussion sections and nearly 20 percent of the lectures on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus. The proposed bill targets both their benefits and their ability to bargain over tuition remission. This is no small matter: A statement released by the TAA Saturday said that tuition remission is the university’s strongest recruitment tool for graduate students and ending collective bargaining in this area would impact the quality of the teaching and research brought into the university.

Over the last week, groups of students migrated from other state campuses to participate in the protests in Madison. Rachel Matteson, a member of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, came down Sunday to rally at the Capitol building.

“Attacking teachers assistants and teachers directly affects the quality of our education. Students realize this. Many of us will be graduating soon and entering the public sector, so this is also an attack on our own rights,” Matteson told The Nation.

Some 260 faculty members at UW-Madison signed a letter opposing the bill, "We recognize that the state faces a severe budget shortfall. We have already taken wage and benefit cuts to help address that problem and expect to make more sacrifices in the future. But eliminating collective bargaining will not address this shortfall. We urge you not to allow this crisis to undermine our state's strong traditions of democracy and human rights."

Public school teachers from around the state have been protesting at the Capitol building for the last week. On Sunday, after a four-hour debate on how to balance maintaining their opposition to the bill with their responsibilities to teach, Madison public school teachers decided to return to work on Tuesday.

Not only are public school teacher’s collective bargaining rights threatened, but public education is also expected to be reduced by nearly $500 annually per student.

Simultaneously, and also causing a stir, is a proposal expected to be included in Walkers budget that involves splitting the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the rest of the state’s university system. Some officials worry this could cause tuition to skyrocket.

For more, check out John Nichols' coverage from Madison, Wisconsin.

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