Josh Kurtz: Blame the Teachers!

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So let’s get this straight: Our country has been driven off a cliff by greedy Wall Street bankers and unscrupulous mortgage lenders, aided and abetted by lax Bush and Clinton-era regulators. How do our policymakers address the economic crisis that followed? By blaming teachers –- and other public employees.

That may be an overly simplistic diagnosis of the current state of political discourse. But it isn’t too far off the mark.

The world seems to have gone mad; all rational thought now eludes our political leaders. The nationwide declaration of war on teachers seems especially puzzling and disturbing (full disclosure: I’m married to one), and has deep implications for Maryland politics and government.

In Wisconsin, what Gov. Scott Walker (R) is attempting, to cripple the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions, is a classic example of Republican overreach, which is also currently on display on Capitol Hill – and serves as a reminder that Democrats, when they’re in control in Washington, are way too timid.

It’s no secret that Republicans have long been at odds with public employee unions, which almost uniformly endorse Democrats. So it’s easy to see that Walker’s move is a crafty attempt to neuter one of Republicans’ biggest irritants.

But the current “blame the teacher” movement has its genesis not in some shadowy conservative cabal, but right here in liberal Washington, D.C. It was fueled by Michelle Rhee, the wunderkind former D.C. schools chancellor, who after spending about 40 minutes as a classroom teacher herself, was hailed as a savior – not just by her political patrons, but by a thousand media outlets who put her visage on national magazine covers and on the silver screen. The end result in Washington, before Rhee walked away from the job, was decidedly mixed.

Make no mistake, rooting out bad teachers, as Rhee attempted to do, is a good thing. We’ve all encountered incompetent teachers in our lives. Extending the conversation to other government workers, we’ve all encountered feckless bureaucrats who don’t deserve to be supported by hardworking taxpayers.

But to paint an entire class of workers with a broad brush that tars each of them with the sins of a few incompetents? That’s not right. Government service –- especially teaching –- is a noble calling. No one does it to get rich, that’s for sure.

Yet that hasn’t stopped politicians and the media from targeting the so-called gold-plated pensions and benefits of public employees, which seem pretty paltry when you consider what corporate executives are pulling in –- even when they are incontestably incompetent. Where are the pols’ attempts to crack down on those?

Were some deals with federal, state and local unions more generous than they should have been? Perhaps. Most unions –- even the ones in Wisconsin –- are acknowledging that in dire budgetary times they’ve got to do their share, and are agreeing to givebacks or less favorable terms for new employees.

But a contract is a contract. Sports fans and columnists often rail against the size of contracts that are showered on their favorite pro athletes. And sure, most are outrageously high. But someone was willing to pay it –- for competitive advantage, or to stimulate the fan base, or to keep an opponent from landing the star player.

The same thought should apply when assessing the contracts of government workers. They got what they got because someone was willing to pay it –- whether to reward a key constituency, or maintain labor peace, or because it was the right thing to do.

Last week, as Maryland union leaders were being quoted in the media saying their contract beefs with state and local government officials aren’t nearly as acrimonious as they are in Wisconsin, our state’s teachers were receiving a call to arms in the mail from their union. The letter from Maryland State Education Association President Clara Floyd called the state’s move to increase teacher contributions toward their pensions “an elaborate shell game” and “a teacher tax.”

The teachers are the most powerful union in Maryland and one of the most powerful special interests around, so attention must be paid. It’ll be interesting to see what a planned union rally in Annapolis on March 14 looks like compared to the images we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Madison, Wis. You get the sense that most Democratic elected officials in Maryland don’t have the stomach for the fight, even though they see the fiscal necessity.

Some union leaders will say that even modest cutbacks from their Democratic friends are a bigger betrayal than a full rollback of collective bargaining rights from Republicans. But that’s just rhetoric. The unions in Maryland know how good they have it compared to their brothers and sisters in Wisconsin and elsewhere – at least for now.

By the same token, you wonder if Scott Walker and his brethren really expect to eliminate collective bargaining rights –- or whether they’re merely laying down a marker.

Republicans are highly adept at driving the political conversation, of pushing the political pendulum farther and farther to the right. No longer are Democrats and Republicans fighting over whether to cut the federal budget –- now the discussion is over how much to cut.

The spending plan House Republicans adopted 10 days ago is audacious –- not just for the severity of its cuts, but for the other things it aims to accomplish: decimating environmental regulations, zapping all funding for Planned Parenthood, taking a boot to the throat of National Public Radio, and so on.

They won’t succeed in killing all environmental regulations, but by taking the most extreme position possible, you can be sure that a significant defanging of the Environmental Protection Agency will become a compromise position that Democrats will have to swallow. They won’t be able to zero-out funding for reproductive health programs or NPR, but they’ll come close.

That’s the GOP playbook –- one national Democrats could stand to learn from.

Take the fight over health care reform (please). If President Obama and Congressional Democrats were intent on passing a public option, they should have staked out a position far to the left of that –- like supporting the single payer plan.

That would have given them some negotiating room. Sure, Republicans would have called the Democrats socialists –- but they did that anyway. And instead of clear and bold health care reform, the country got something so complicated and muddled that no one can say for sure what it really is. Certainly the Democrats are deriving no political benefit from it.

In America, the political pendulum inevitably swings back and forth. But in the past few decades, the Republicans, when they’ve had the opportunity, have pushed it far further in their direction than the Democrats ever do when they’re governing. That, to a large extent, is what the Republicans’ budget maneuvers have been about on Capitol Hill and what is going on with Scott Walker and the legislature in Wisconsin.

Where the push to cut government workers’ benefits ends –- in Madison, in Annapolis, and in all 24 Maryland counties, is anybody’s guess. But what’s abundantly clear is that once you think politics couldn’t possibly get any uglier in this country, it becomes worse.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The Nine Lives of the ICC

The Incredible Shrinking City

Paying the Fare

Republican Rising Stars

Only 2,114 Days Till Election Day 2016

An Old Timer Holds Forth on Annapolis

Maryland's Moment?

Happy New War

Nobody Asked Me, but…

To the Mooney...

Can Baker Cook Up Real Change?

Preppies at the Gate

Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.