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Teachers Make Their Case with Protests—and a Proposal

As we've reported, teachers and the unions that represent them are scrambling on several fronts as they struggle to fight what they see as misguided Republican-led proposals rolling through statehouses around the country.

This week teachers in a couple states have made a public show of force against those measures, while one state teachers' union took the opposite approach, offering a surprise plan of their own to overhaul how educators are evaluated. That proposal also calls for the breakup of a major city school district.

First, to the world of picket signs and public testimony:

• In Idaho, the speakers were lined up about 6-to-1 against state superintendent Tom Luna's plan plan to overall school funding in the state, according to one report. Luna, along with the state's governor, fellow Republican C.L. "Butch" Otter, wants to raise class sizes to cut costs and rechannel money into virtual education and performance pay. But while skeptics may have won the day, the GOP controls the legislature.

• In Indiana, opponents of a charter school bill, many of them teachers, crowded the state capitol to make their position known. The measure is backed by Republican state schools chief Tony Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels, who have proposed a broad agenda to bring more charters and choice to Indiana's schools.

• In Florida, no protests on this one yet, but influential state lawmaker John Thrasher is backing a measure that would block unions frrom using member dues for political purposes without written consent from members. Leaders of the state's largest teachers' unions see a target on their backs. (As I discussed in a story last month, Alabama's Republican-controlled legislature approved a measure in December that had similar goals.)

Out in Wisconsin, meanwhile, the picture this week looked quite different. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, a 98,000-member union, unveiled a broad proposal to create a new teacher evaluation and pay scheme—and called for breaking up the Milwaukee Public School System.

Judging from the reaction, as described in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the proposal seems to have knocked a lot of elected officials and advocates back on their heels. Some are suggesting that the union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, sees which way the political winds are blowing and is trying to outflank its critics.

The union calls for creating a system of annual reviews for teachers during their first three years, and a path for removing ineffective teachers from the classroom. They say they're willing to allow student test scores to be used in evaluation and in identifying struggling teachers, and that research on value-added measures would be brought into the mix. The plan would replace the current step-based salary schedule with a system that offers rewards for certain activities, like working in hard-to-staff schools, and taking on more school responsibility.

"We believe bold actions are needed in these three areas to move education forward. The time for change is now," said Mary Bell, the union's president, in a statement. "This is a pivotal time in public education and we're in an aera of tight resources."

The proposed pay system, she said, "acknowledges that experience and education matter—but that we should also establish specific market incentives to encourage veteran educators to fill hard-to-serve schools and hard-to-fill positions."

Will other unions follow the Wisconsin organization's lead in the months ahead?

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