By Tom Still

MADISON – It’s easy to be cynical about the plan for school reform offered by the statewide teachers’ union… almost too easy.

Yes, the proposal by the Wisconsin Education Association Council could have been floated at any time during the eight-year term of former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat the union supported.

Yes, WEAC could have put forward its ideas for improving teacher quality, rewarding top teachers and fixing Milwaukee Public Schools last year before the federal government rejected Wisconsin’s application for “Race to the Top” money.

And, yes, the leadership at WEAC certainly saw the handwriting on the chalkboard when Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a GOP-dominated Legislature swept the November elections.

Everyone knows all of that, however, so it doesn’t take Prince Machiavelli to plot the obvious politics surrounding the WEAC plan. Simply put, the union is trying to stay ahead of the train.

But what really matters is that front-line educators have signaled they’re ready for school reform – changes that could build a smarter, better-prepared workforce for Wisconsin. It’s an offer that should not be shrugged off with an early dismissal bell.

For the first time, WEAC has endorsed reforms it previously opposed. Those include:

* Dropping a teacher pay schedule that rewarded longevity and advanced degrees but little else. The union now supports “merit pay” based on performance, national certification, leadership roles, and how teachers handle more difficult assignments such as bilingual or special education, or teaching in under-performing schools.
* Adopting student test results, a peer review panel, mentoring and other factors to root out ineffective teachers.
* Breaking up the state’s largest school district, Milwaukee Public Schools, into six smaller units within four years.

After WEAC’s announcement last week, Walker praised the proposal and even telephoned the union’s president, Mary Bell, to congratulate her. Then again, that olive branch was quickly followed by Walker’s budget adjustment bill proposals to dramatically limit the power of public employee unions – including the teachers’ union itself.

For now, let’s assume a foundation for constructive conversation still exists. What should be the role of public education’s ultimate consumers – businesses and the communities in which their employees live and work?

That role should be to support school reform, which is vital to Wisconsin’s economic prosperity.

Study after study has revealed that American schools aren’t producing enough students who can compete in the global economy. That’s true even in Wisconsin, which prides itself on above-average performance in college placement scores, high-school graduation rates and more.

Trouble is, students in other nations are pulling ahead of their American counterparts by most measures – especially in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called “STEM” disciplines. According to federal data, job openings requiring expertise in STEM fields will increase by 18.3 percent through 2014. Many of Wisconsin’s fastest-growing industries and its highest-demand jobs are in fields that require rigorous training in science, technology, engineering and math.

Unless Wisconsin can produce more high-school graduates who are proficient in those disciplines and more, state businesses won’t be able to fill critical jobs. Businesses that cannot find the workers they need close to home are often forced to expand elsewhere – hardly a formula for success. Poorly educated students rarely become the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

That is particularly true in the Milwaukee area, where the state’s largest school district is failing to educate many children. The largest city in Wisconsin cannot prosper without good schools, which are necessary over the long haul if Milwaukee hopes to renew its economy and its civic life.

It’s easy to be cynical about WEAC’s new-found religion, but it’s also important to understand how the union works. Its leaders have been open to change for years, but have typically encountered stiff, behind-the-scenes opposition from old-school local bargaining units. On the other hand, about one-third of all WEAC members identify themselves as Republicans – a demographic that could back reform unless they feel backed into a corner.

The debate has begun over how to improve Wisconsin’s public schools. Late or otherwise, it’s a debate worth having.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.