Wisconsin Gov. Walker was pro-teachers union before he wasn’t

Only a few days before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker started a war with organized labor, he was effusively praising the state’s teachers and their union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council. On Feb. 8th, WEAC proposed two big reforms that it had previously opposed: the creation of a statewide system for evaluating teachers that took into account their students’ gains in achievement, and a compensation system that rewarded performance.

The next day, Walker and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were asked to react to the WEAC proposals on the Wisconsin Public Radio show hosted by Joy Cardin. (Search for Arne Duncan and it will be the first one to show up. ) “It’s great,” Walker said. “We should be able to reward teachers who excel and there are many, many, many teachers across the state who excel,” he said. “For the state’s teachers union to be willing to talk about pay for performance and a legitimate way for teachers to be assessed, I think it’s … exceptional … a good sign.”

Even as he was praising the union, however, he was about to go on the attack. He soon introduced a budget package that would essentially restrict collective bargaining in the state only to wages.

Duncan, who has been critical of Walker’s move, recalled that radio interview at a breakfast with bloggers in Washington, D.C. this week. In the interview, Duncan had said “WEAC is showing tremendous courage, it’s the right thing for children, it’s the right thing for teachers, it’s the right thing for the profession and where you have leaders with courage willing to step out there and, frankly, probably take some pretty significant heat internally, we need to reward that … and recognize it.”

What you don’t want to do, Duncan told the bloggers, “is hit them with a hammer,” implying that Walker had squandered an opportunity to collaborate on issues that would directly affect the quality of teaching in the state.

Duncan said he is “not in favor of collaboration for collaboration’s sake … I’m not about kumbaya. It’s about doing things to get better results for kids.” Collective bargaining isn’t going away, and he said it “can and will be a tool for improving student achievement.”

But that won’t happen in Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and other states that are trying to eliminate collective bargaining or limit negotiations to wages.

A version of this post first appeared on Education Sector’s “The Quick and the Ed” blog on March 4, 2011.