06/06/2012 02:47 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2012

Lessons Learned for Educators From the Wisconsin Recall

This will likely be one of the many hundreds of reflections written after the dust-up in Wisconsin. I'm also certain that what can be said has been already, with much of the wisdom coming in bits and pieces 140 characters or fewer. As an educator, I want to know in particular the implications for education and public schools.

Governor Walker's victory in the recall election is certainly another major blow to teachers' unions, whose influence and membership waned since 2010. Roughly $1 billion in cuts to education budgets resulted in average teachers' salaries dropping by as much as $2,000, which is not entirely an insignificant sum for tight family budgets. Local Wisconsin coverage also notes that other strongly conservative education reforms, like voucher programs and the elimination of tenure protections, will arrive unabashedly as a new and very powerful political mandate establishes itself.

The recall election results depress me on a deeply personal level because of a recent trip to Madison, Wisconsin to record more episodes of our education reform radio show At the Chalk Face, co-hosted by Tim Slekar and myself, for the local station WTDY. For one show that will be broadcast soon, we spent an hour talking with a Madison middle school teacher about a lot of different topics, but the looming recall did come up. To this teacher, to paraphrase in a few words, a Walker victory would be akin to a total invalidation of the hard work that teachers perform. We only hear about the cuts and not the necessary investment that makes good education possible for all families, not just the ones who can afford private schools.

I am always stunned by the regular folks supporting constant cuts to education and implying that educators don't deserve the payment they do receive to ply their trade. And when I say regular, I mean the folks that so easily bash public school teachers, yet rely on them to teach their children. I mean, why would you allow your child to be in the care of someone else for six hours a day who you feel is lazy, incompetent, and a drain on our economy? It makes no sense.

But that is another matter for another day. As a result of this recall, public unions, especially teachers' unions, will take another huge hit from those hell-bent on destroying them. Even as an educator who supports public schools, I've had my own disappointments with some teachers' unions, particularly the ones that must advocate at a national level. Like many leaders of the Democratic party, our president being the chief violator, compromise and collaboration superseded firm stances on principle. Principles are all right to stand on sometimes, notably if ignoring them means giving too much up at first, as happened with the health care debate.

With no friends in the state house and little strength left with labor unions, Wisconsin teachers, and perhaps educators nationwide, might need to think about taking individual stands on principle. Now, I know what you might be thinking: without unions and the big old pot that comes with dues collection, teachers are not protected from unreasonable demands on their time, cannot negotiate a fair price on health benefits, or be shielded against unfair litigation. I get that; who can afford a lawyer nowadays?

There are things that teachers can do to reconnect with their professional conscience that might be contrary to where national unions are heading. Refuse to use the national curriculum. Disrupt unreasonable field testing. Boycott companies that sell student data or allow that data to be sent to a national database with the sole purpose of tracking individual students. Engage with your fellow teachers in critical conversations about education policies. Turn to social media to learn your outside voices.

What I think is important to acknowledge here is that large national teachers' unions are definitely interested in their own survival. They have offices and buildings and employees. I can certainly acknowledge the good work that they do, but teachers' unions lately, for their own survival and relevance, have made some uncomfortable alliances and taken some rather confusing positions that are anathema to how their members actually feel. Thus, it is more for the preservation of their own structures and power at the expense of those for whom the union advocates.

I'm not suggesting the dismantling of teachers' unions, as Walker sympathizers might. Yet, in the unions' fight to maintain their own authority, I think they've forgotten who they serve. Negotiating health benefits, for example, is critically important and definitely outside the realm of understanding for most people. But there's a lot teachers can and should do to defend their profession without the handholding provided by unions. In Wisconsin especially, that might be the only thing individual teachers have left.