The nation's governors are gathering in Washington this weekend at a time when education issues have bolted to the front of the public debate—and not for reasons the state leaders would have hoped.
Protests by teachers' unions have erupted in states across the country. At the same time, state governments face dire budget deficits that have forced some governors and lawmakers to propose freezing or making cuts to popular school programs and services.
Amid those glum conditions, attendees of the National Governors Association's winter meeting offered some positive news: They believe their economies are recovering, albeit slowly.
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat who chairs the group, summed up the mood. She said she and other leaders are worried about any potentially disruptive economic events—such as a federal government shutdown or the loss of federal economic stimulus aid—that could set them back.
"We're fragile," Gov. Gregoire said at a press conference to open the three-day meeting. "We are fragile. So anything Congress does, whether it's a shutdown, or cuts that are going to directly impact the states, can be of considerable concern to us, because we do not need a hiccup in our recovery."
The nation's labor discord also cast a long shadow over the event.
As the governors began their meeting, a 12th day of protests led by Wisconsin teachers and other union members swelled to their largest numbers yet at the Capitol in Madison, exceeding the nearly 70,000 protesters who converged there a week earlier, according to police estimates.
The massive protests were sparked by Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to strip public employees of many of their collective bargaining rights. The governor's plan was thrown into limbo a week ago when the Senate's 14 Democratic members left the state to prevent Republicans, who control both legislative chambers, from voting. Without at least one Democrat, Republicans in the Senate don't have a quorum, and still didn't on Saturday.
The state's largest teachers' union has agreed to accept Walker's proposal to have them pay more for pensions and health care, but they firmly oppose his changes to collective bargaining. The governor—who didn't plan to attend the NGA meeting because of the ongoing legislative standoff—says all those steps will save local governments, including school districts, hundreds of millions of dollars.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who spoke on a panel at the event, urged governors to try to find common ground with teachers' unions. Earlier this month, the secretary hosted a conference meant to highlight collaboration between unions and district administrators. Such collaborations can produce innovative agreements that improve instruction and student learning, he said.
Duncan, in an interview, said he had spoken with Walker. The secretary suggested that he had urged the governor to reach an accord with teachers, citing the benefits that such agreements have had at local school districts.
"It's all the more important in this [financial] environment" to reach agreements with unions, Duncan told me. "In tough times, you need a different view of the world, you need a third way."
Duncan made it clear that while he thought it was fair to ask unions to compromise on pensions and health care, he thought the governor's changes to bargaining rights went too far.
"He and I had a very candid conversation," the secretary said. "I understand that the union put their hands up and said, absolutely, we'll contribute" more to pensions and health care. "But to try to strip them of their collective bargaining rights, when collective bargaining rights can be a tool to drive student achievement, that misses the point."
Duncan said his department will provide written resources this week to states (at least some of those resources are publicly available already) that highlight examples of unions and districts working together to improve schools.
To help states through their financial struggles, the department also will provide another set of written materials that give the states direction on how they can use federal education funding in more flexible ways, across programs. In addition, Duncan said the department will give states examples of what it regards as innovative and effective cost-savings techniques and advice on how to get more "productivity" out of schools during tough economic times.
Other attendees at the NGA meeting offered mixed opinions of the labor unrest in Wisconsin, which has been echoed by protests elsewhere, including Ohio and Indiana.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, considered a rising star in the GOP, voiced admiration for Walker's decision to hold firm in his stance. But Christie discounted the idea that he would push for similar changes to collective bargaining rights in his state.
Christie has feuded with his state's largest teachers' union and has pushed for changes that would make state workers pay more for benefits.
"Trying to analogize this to other states is really not at all constructive," Christie, speaking to a pack of reporters, said of the Wisconsin standoff. "I've got to do my thing, my way." While he did not seem interested in offering a plan similiar to Walker's, he said it wasn't it wasn't because he wanted to avoid controversy. "I've never been a wallflower. If I was interested in that, I would."
Martin O'Malley, the Democratic governor of Maryland, sharply criticized Walker's position on the collective bargaining. O'Malley noted that his state has tried to work more cooperatively with teachers' unions, despite labor's objections to elements of the state's winning proposal in the federal Race to the Top competition.
O'Malley said Republican governors in Wisconsin and other states were picking fights for political gain.
"They've got a problem," O'Malley told me. "It's kind of hard to make government work if you think government is the enemy. ... You have to bring people together in the spirit of trust and progress toward shared goals. And the goal of wiping out unions is not what inspires people to work harder."
O'Malley noted that his administration is asking teachers' unions to sacrifice through a proposal (like those being offered in many states) to have public workers pay more for benefits.
The Maryland governor said he brings a basic argument to the negotiating table.
"I simply lay out the math, and what the actuaries are telling us," he said, noting that not bringing down costs could affect the state's bond rating. "We have to put ourselves on the trajectory of bringing these costs down."
At the same time, he said, striking a fair deal with educators would help the state "recruit and keep effective teachers in our classrooms."
Photo: Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, right, talks with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana/AP).