Lobbyists for the Idaho Education Association may want to study Custer’s last stand during the legislative session that starts Monday.
Like the U.S. Army’s legendary loser, the teachers union has every advantage: money, veteran political advisors, state-of-the art technology and plenty of ground troops to call on.
But, like Custer, the IEA finds itself surrounded by hostile forces eager to settle old scores on home turf.
After 24 years of protection by Democratic governors, teachers union lobbyists must now deal with Phil Batt, a Republican.
The last time he ran, in 1982, the union helped to defeat him, using a widely circulated videotape that lumped Batt with right-wing radicals and Nazis. Given his strong support for civil-rights legislation, it was a knock that outraged even Democrats.
Also gone is Jerry Evans, the moderate Republican superintendent of public instruction who often teamed up with the union for 16 years.
When he retired, voters replaced him with Anne Fox, a conservative Republican who made anti-IEA rhetoric a cornerstone of her campaign. One of her early acts was to hire Bob Forrey, a longtime IEA critic who says the union has “a Marxist philosophy.”
And the Legislature is overwhelmingly Republican this year, with plenty of lawmakers who have felt the sting of pointed attack ads paid for by the IEA.
Linking arms with a Republican governor, the GOP majority plans to change the way education is run in Idaho. On issues from class size and curriculum to teacher pay and school construction, the new governor and his allies in the Department of Education and the Legislature plan to re-write the common wisdom.
For example, Rep. Jeff Alltus, R-Coeur d’Alene, considers the IEA to be a political enemy.
“Their goal is to build a large education bureaucracy and my goal is to get the best education for the children of Idaho that we possibly can. I think those are goals that are going in different directions.”
Batt said teachers need to adjust their expectations.
“Of course labor needs a voice and that includes teachers,” he said. “But the fact is that teachers are not going to be paid comparable with some of the higher-paying states as long as Idaho wages in general rank near the bottom. No amount of negotiations is going to change that.”
Batt also said future raises may come in a different form. The union has long fought for pay raises based on seniority, but Batt campaigned on a promise to emphasize merit pay.
He made conciliatory noises last week, but sent out a warning, too.
“They’ve damaged their credibility by playing hard-ball politics,” he said. “They would make their job easier if they didn’t constantly try to belittle those that disagree with them.”
Education Committee Chairman Ron Black, R-Twin Falls, said much of this year’s political news is bad for the union.
“A bright side? Well, I’m not sure what they’re going to envision as a bright side,” said House Education Committee chairman Ron Black. “I’m not sure some of the pet projects they’ve pushed for will get as much consideration.”
With a new governor in place, conservatives like Sen. Rod Beck, R-Meridian, say they hope bills that were rejected in the past will be enacted.
Beck said he will reintroduce legislation to make Idaho’s right-to-work law applicable to school teachers and other public employees.
Former Gov. Cecil Andrus vetoed it in 1990. If passed, it would prohibit school districts from paying union dues from a pool of money not accessible to non-union teachers, a common practice in Idaho.
Beck also will propose repealing the state law that requires school districts to negotiate with unionized teachers.
Despite these proposed changes, IEA leaders profess not to be worried enough to change their style or their message.
“I don’t think it’s out of sync,” said Jim Shackleford, the executive director and chief lobbyist for the 10,000-member union.
“We will do what we’ve done in the past and we will add to it more effective grass-roots contacts with legislators. We intend to speak out against every bad idea that comes before the Legislature.”
IEA President Monica Beaudoin, a former Sandpoint High School teacher and former legislator from North Idaho, said the IEA is on the right side of the issue that was central to most winning campaigns.
“Legislators are very concerned about the children in this state and their education,” Beaudoin said. “I don’t think there is anyone who would intentionally try to hurt that process. If they take after the collective bargaining law, that will ultimately have an impact on what happens in the classrom.”
She said the union will make every effort to get along with Superintendent of Public Instruction Fox and other lawmakers. “If not,” Beaudoin said, “there will be another election two years from now and four years from now.”