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WEAC phone bank

Phone bank volunteer Dean Bowles offers to put a private school voucher opponent in touch with a local Republican legislator in this 2013 file photo. The effort was organized by a coalition of Dane County school boards, superintendents and community public school advocates in cooperation with the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

Four years after public school teachers lost their guaranteed spot at the bargaining table, Wisconsin’s largest teachers union has lost more than half its membership and its spending at the Capitol has all but disappeared.

Now, local members of the Wisconsin Education Association Council are turning their efforts toward school board races and reaching out to parents in an effort to eventually regain some influence in Madison.

“We’re rebuilding our political landscape,” said Mark Lindsey, president of WEAC’s Region 6, which comprises 57 school districts in Dane and surrounding counties. “We’re saying, ‘OK. We used to have sway top down and the only way we get back there again is to educate people at the local level.’”

About 40,000 public school employees are represented by WEAC, Dustin Beilke, Region 6 director. told the State Journal editorial board last week. WEAC spokeswoman, Christina Brey said it was thousands higher but declined to provide an exact number.

Either way, membership is down more than 50 percent from the union’s 98,000-member levels before Gov. Scott Walker signed his signature legislation in 2011 that significantly diminished collective bargaining rights for most public employees.

WEAC’s lobbying dollars have dropped dramatically, too.

A decade ago, WEAC spent $1.5 million on lobbying during the 2005-2006 legislative session, state records show. The next session: $1.1 million. During the two sessions leading up to the passage of Act 10, WEAC spent $2.5 million and $2.3 million, respectively.

But during the 2013-14 session, after Walker signed the bill into law, the union spent just $175,540. It was the first time in at least 10 years that the union was not among the state’s top 12 lobbying spenders, according to the Government Accountability Board.

“That has a big effect on the political landscape,” said Mike McCabe, former executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks political spending. “They often were the No. 1 lobbying spender among interest groups and they obviously don’t have the capacity to do that anymore.”

But Brey said it’s part of a strategy that WEAC was working on before Act 10. She said instead of relying on a lobbyist, the local focus is more effective because legislators have to explain their votes in their communities.

“At some point you have to look someone in the eye and explain just what you’re doing to their neighborhood public school and why,” she said.

A Republican-controlled Legislature is considering a number of proposals that would change or reduce funding for public schools, including increasing the number of private voucher schools across the state, expanding the number of independent charter schools and applying letter grades to schools in report cards.

School district superintendents, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the School Administrators Alliance have been lobbying lawmakers as Republicans write education legislation. But their collective voice is not as large as WEAC’s was before Act 10 simply because there are fewer members, said McCabe.

“Generally, it hurts public education interests because there are fewer voices talking about the public education perspective at the Capitol,” he said. “I don’t think it will change in the short term. I think public employee unions are likely to get smaller before they ever get bigger.”

GOP Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon has been either chairman of or active in both houses’ education committees for nearly 20 years. He said that years ago the union had an especially high amount of influence when Democrat Jim Doyle was governor or when one or both of the Capitol’s houses were controlled by Democrats.

“That was when they were really in there pitching what they wanted,” he said. “It was a little tougher when Republicans were in control because they made themselves partisan.”

WEAC also has been very influential in state superintendent races. For example, WEAC’s spending hit around $550,000 on television and radio advertisements in 2009 and was crucial to the election of Tony Evers over school voucher proponent Rose Fernandez.

Dan Rossmiller, lobbyist for the school boards association, said his organization’s voice does not replace WEAC’s because it represents a different perspective. And because the association is officially nonpartisan, it does not get involved in political campaigns.

And now, Olsen said, “Honestly, I never see (WEAC officials) in the Capitol anymore. I don’t even know who their lobbyist is.”

Brey said it wasn’t sustainable to rely on lobbying at the Capitol. Now, there are more local parent and public school advocacy groups emerging across the state.

“These are new energized voices (saying) we can’t leave it to somebody else,” Brey said.

Lindsey, an Oregon High School history teacher, said his region is focusing on grassroots efforts. In 2012, the union reorganized and consolidated satellite offices creating Region 6. WEAC is now supporting those offices and ensuring members are getting what they need, he said.

He said teachers have more of a voice locally.

“So much of the policymaking and direct impact of educational programs on kids are still controlled by those local school boards,” Lindsey said. “It’s a way to keep an eye on the prize.”

In Oregon, five of seven school board members were endorsed by the teachers’ union. Lindsey credits teachers’ efforts for electing the five over three elections.

Lindsey said he’s concerned about future growth in WEAC because of teachers’ wage increases being limited by Walker’s Act 10, as well as a swath of young teachers who may not make enough annually to feel inclined to join a union and pay dues.

He said much of WEAC’s membership losses have been in support staff who also might not earn enough to cover dues. “It’s part of the reality we’re living in today,” said Lindsey. “Governor Walker got exactly what he wanted — (he) found a way to disempower his only substantial challengers.”

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said Saturday that Act 10 “put the power back in the hands of the people and local governments, saving Wisconsin taxpayers more than $3 million in the process and allowing public employees the freedom to choose if they want to join a union.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.