Friday, March 14, 2008

Putting a Gun to the Heads of Maryland’s Teachers (Updated)

The Baltimore Sun is reporting that Senate President Mike Miller is threatening education and teachers’ pension funding in an effort to get the Maryland State Teachers Association to support slots. This proves Eric Luedtke’s worries about this issue correct.

According to the Sun:

“They've got to help us either get some type of revenue, either taxes or the video lottery terminals, so we can continue funding public education at the rate I want it funded,” Miller said. "There's nothing more I want than to fund public education, but the beneficiaries of public education have got to respond in kind.”
But there is more:

The Senate president has also told union leaders that their failure to back the measure could force the General Assembly to seek another funding source for teacher pensions, including asking counties and school boards to foot the bill, a move that would almost certainly force severe cuts on the local level.
I have disagreed with the Senate President on slots in the past. But even more than that, I disagree with his approach to the relationship of slots and education funding. A common-sense, pro-education approach to this issue is to say, “I’m committed to education, now let’s go find the money.” Instead, Mr. Miller seems to be saying, “I’m committed to slots, now let’s figure out how to pass them.” This is not the kind of pro-education behavior I expect from my party in Annapolis.

Slots are now being marketed as a magical solution to the state’s budget problems. Some politicians are now telling us that if we pass them, we can pay for education, repeal the computer tax and pay for virtually any other kind of program that we want. But in fact, as surrounding jurisdictions increase their gambling programs in a mad, dice-and-whiskey-fueled gaming arms race, our revenue take will be far from certain. The only certainty is that license-holding corporations will be enriched beyond their executives’ wildest dreams, including those that are now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

The Senate President is a recognized master of politics and has survived as long as he has by knowing the sentiments in his chamber better than anyone – ever. He is pressuring the teachers by threatening education funding and holding up their grievance arbitration bill because he knows that voters respect them. Apple Ballots with one-armed bandits on them are almost as valuable as penthouse comps. But there is a price to this tactic.

First, the teachers waged a relentless four-year campaign to get their pension benefits increased, a fight that ended in 2006. By threatening to subject those benefits to county financing, Mr. Miller is signaling his willingness to endanger the teachers’ top legislative achievement of the decade.

Second, he is pressuring the state organization’s board to make a decision without input from a closely-divided membership. This does not take into account the internal realities of a union, which is in fact a political organization. No political organization likes dealing with divisive issues – for example, look at the General Assembly’s contortions on gay marriage, illegal immigration, the death penalty and, of course, slots. As any political organization works it way through a tough issue, it needs time, delicate negotiations and ways to assuage those who come up short. Putting a gun to the heads of the leadership, as Mr. Miller is doing, may earn him a temporary victory but is sure to create fury in the ranks and a desire for revenge against the Senate President, his pro-slots colleagues and even some of the state union leaders themselves.

In Montgomery County, we call MCEA the 800-pound gorilla. Don’t make it angry, Mr. Miller, because this gorilla has a long memory.

Update: MSTA's board voted last night to support the slots referendum. The Post has the story here. MSTA President Clara Floyd released this statement:

Today the MSTA Board of Directors voted to support passage of the November slots referendum.

Thanks to Thornton funding, we are making clear progress in raising student achievement across the state. Our greatest moral responsibility is to continue this progress by ensuring that educators and schools have the resources they need to give every child access to great public schools.

The referendum establishes an Education Trust Fund and dedicates half of future proceeds to our public schools. It provides Maryland with an additional source of funding, beginning with licensing fees in early 2009.

Because of our state’s precarious fiscal outlook, if this referendum fails, students, teachers and support staff will be left with outdated facilities, larger classes, outdated textbooks and shortages of materials. School systems will be left with fewer resources to recruit and retain the best teachers and support staff.

Although this referendum is a necessary component to curing our state’s long-term fiscal woes, it is not sufficient. MSTA will continue to advocate strongly for other progressive and sustainable revenue alternatives to provide adequate funding for public education.
Despite the state board's endorsement, readers should not assume that all local affiliates will now do everything in their power to support slots. Judging from the controversial nature of the decision and, especially, the way in which it was made, some local affiliates are bound to work harder for the referendum than others.