Howard Rich

The defensive struggle that’s currently being waged by America’s public sector unions has the potential to usher in a renaissance of parental choice in our nation – assuming supporters of academic freedom are willing to seize this opportunity and resist the urge to settle for half-measures.

Battles over collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio represent the first skirmishes in a protracted, nationwide war against taxpayer-funded unions – engagements that have backed these entitled bureaucrats up against the wall for the first time in recent memory. No longer dictating terms to elected officials, public sector unions are fighting for their very survival as Tea Party members and legions of independent-minded voters have finally seen them for what they are – cash-guzzling cancers on taxpayers.

“The states with the highest per-capita debt all have something in common: Robust public-sector unions that have, over the years, cut sweetheart deals with politicians,” author David Freddoso wrote recently.

Indeed, recent data shows that taxpayers living in states with elevated percentages of unionized government workers (60 percent or more) are burdened with more than twice the per capita debt of taxpayers living in states with lower percentages of unionized government workers (40 percent or less).

In addition to resounding union defeats in Ohio and Wisconsin – legislation has been introduced in Florida that would free taxpayers from the burden of collecting union dues. Another Sunshine state bill would require unions to seek re-certification each year if their membership falls below a certain level.

Other efforts to cut union benefits, limit collective bargaining or curb recruitment efforts are underway in Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Tennessee, among other states. Meanwhile legislators in California and New York – hardly bastions of conservatism – are considering bills that would permit school districts to ignore seniority when firing teachers. Even in liberal Massachusetts lawmakers are contemplating cutting unions out of the loop when it comes to determining hiring, promotion and drug testing policies.

What do all of these proposals have to do with parental choice?

Well, as cash-strapped public sector unions find themselves beset by a rising tide of legislation targeting their benefits, collective bargaining and recruitment tools – they are becoming less inclined (and less able) to fight against parental choice plans. In fact, they must defend their bread and butter issues first – or risk losing everything.

As a result, there is no better time than right now for free market leaders at the state level to push for expanded parental options. In fact many state leaders have already recognized this. In Wisconsin and Ohio, Governors Scott Walker and John Kasich are both pushing to expand successful school choice programs– as is newly-elected Pennsylvania Gov. John Corbett. Meanwhile in Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels is backing legislation that would establish one of the nation’s largest choice programs.

These leaders – and many others like them across the country – are to be commended for recognizing the urgency of the moment.

Of course in seizing this opportunity, supporters of academic freedom must resist the temptation to endorse limited, means-tested programs that lack the broad-based constituencies created by universal choice plans. Union leaders – well-aware of the vulnerable position in which they now find themselves– will likely float these “compromise” proposals in an effort to preserve their limited resources for more pressing battles.

Choice supporters should not fall for the trap. As soon as circumstances permit, the public sector unions will turn on these small choice programs and seek to eliminate them – efforts which will undoubtedly succeed unless there is a constituency in place to defend them.

The battle against public sector unions has presented the school choice movement with a promising window of opportunity. For the sake of our children – and the future competitiveness of our nation – let’s hope state leaders continue to recognize this advantage and press it to the fullest.

Howard Rich

Howard Rich is the Chairman of Americans for Limited Government.