The Salem News
Friday, January 23, 2004
So, legislators, what will it be? Money for "the children" or money for the unions?
Just before Gov. Mitt Romney's State of the State address last week, he was warned by Senate President Robert Travaglini not to use his speech for "political agendas and personal attacks."
The Democratic leader then attacked "the governor's belief that reforms are a panacea" for budget concerns.
Nice try, Mr. President.
Both this warning and House Speaker Finneran's earlier State of the State speech, which State House News Service commentator Craig Sandler called "the great attempt to pre-empt of '04," were signs that the legislative leadership is concerned about Romney's "political agenda." They are afraid that voters just might interpret it as a "personal attack" on these leaders' own tendency to put the wants of the unions and other special interests, including themselves, before those of children and other people in the commonwealth.
The governor didn't heed their warning and was not pre-empted. While his smiling, gee-I-love-this-job presentation could hardly be perceived as an attack on anything, Romney laid it all out: You can have all-day kindergarten, after-school programs, college scholarships, new school buildings and happy-faced children, plus increases in local aid and human service spending, or, you can cling to outdated union control of state government. Choose.
His administration is obviously aware of polls showing that "education" is the voters' top priority. And it knows that most "working people" neither belong to unions nor respond to their obsolete political posturing; i.e., rallies meant to be intimidating, shrill and boisterous Ted Kennedy/Howard Dean-like rants.
This strategy just might work because the timing is good. To its credit, and with little negative impact on its members' electability, the Legislature has taken on at least the teachers unions in recent years with its support for MCAS and charter schools. There's no reason not to take on other unions now as well.
According to the Romney administration, 91 percent of the executive branch (including some judges!) is unionized, compared to 35 percent of state employees nationally. And the lack of construction reform costs Massachusetts taxpayers some 10 percent more than necessary for every new school it builds.
Then there's the obvious costs that result from lack of competition - the pro-union Pacheco bill, project labor agreements and wage controls. According to the Associated Builders and Contractors, 75 percent of construction workers are nonunion; yet they are cut out of public building projects by laws that favor the other 25 percent.
Not fair, not cost-effective and not "for the children." Take that, Travaglini!
While applauding the overall Romney strategy, I don't want to give the impression that I buy his "for-the-children" ploy either. The last thing I'd want to do for kids is hand them over to the teachers unions earlier, for longer periods of time. And if their own parents don't already choose to take responsibility for them, creating a "mandatory parent preparation course" won't help - though it would be interesting to see a state agency trying to agree on how to "foster discipline and hard work" in children. Even many good parents (mom vs. dad) can't agree on that, while grandparents try valiantly to keep their own varied opinions to themselves.
And I have to say, scholarships for top MCAS scorers is fiscal nuttiness. Without means testing, it would quickly become a middle-class and wealthy-family entitlement. The point of MCAS is to identify kids who are not learning and help them get what they need so they can at least graduate from high school. If you want to add scholarships, give them to lower-income students who worked hard to overcome their disadvantages.
The parts of Romney's Legacy of Learning program that work best are the common-sense parts, which can be identified by the fact that the average listener's immediate response is, 'You mean we don't do this already"?
First example: Taking discipline problems out of the classroom and teaching them separately, so that "they are no longer in the way of kids who really want to learn." Even the teachers unions should be grateful if Romney can remove chronically disruptive youths from their classrooms.
They probably won't be happy, however, with his plan to give principals the authority to hire and fire - "to remove any teacher that cannot succeed with our kids."
All together now: "You mean they can't?!"
No, in our public schools, the teachers union rules - except for the charter schools, where principals have management power.
Sure, sometimes teachers are fired just because their boss doesn't like them - just like in the nonunionized private sector, which is where most of us work to earn the money that we pay in taxes to support union employees who can't relate to us.
Most unions are an anachronism in our 21st century economy, where most of us workers are hired and paid as individuals, subject to the sometimes cruel rules of the marketplace. Reform is necessary, in both government education and construction, and Gov. Romney has thrown down the gauntlet.
Children and people or business as usual? Choose, Mr. Legislator, choose.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem
News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence
Journal and other newspapers.