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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madland: How the State Journal uses MTI and teachers as a punching bag
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I think the Wisconsin State Journal's editorial board is generally pretty fair. The editorials, mostly written by editor Scott Milfred, come from a fiscally-conservative, socially-liberal perspective. While I often disagree with their views, I admire their principled stance on marriage equality and transparency in all levels of government.

Sometimes the State Journal spills ink tilting at windmills like suggesting Walker and legislative Republicans were seriously going to consider redistricting reform, even when the latest round of redistricting gave the GOP a 10-year lock on control of the Assembly. Other times, they dilute their message a bit by trying a bit too hard to be even-handed.

However, those attempts at even-handedness go out the window when it comes to teachers' unions, with Madison Teachers Inc. as the State Journal's primary target. I, myself, have many criticisms of MTI, but the editorial board has handpicked them to be public employee boogeyman number one.

I would think that the elimination of almost every single teacher's union in the state would make for a less tempting target, but this editorial board still feels a need to take weird potshots at MTI.

A couple of weeks ago, the State Journal ran an editorial in support of year-round schools, which is a good idea that I wholly support. But then much of the editorial suggested that MTI was the reason we don't have any year-round school programs in Madison.

"Badger Rock Middle School is a good example of why the district should insist on more options with its teachers," it read. "Badger Rock is a charter school that employs union teachers, so it follows the traditional school calendar."

This seemed odd to me, as I had never read anything about MTI being opposed the idea of year-round schools. Obviously, I remember their opposition to Madison Prep, but that's involved a ton of issues.

I gave MTI president John Matthews a call to ask him about it, and he was as puzzled as I was.

"We've never had any opposition to year-round schools as long as our staff was paid accordingly for the work. Many of our teachers teach summer school voluntarily," says Matthews, "Space would be an issue. A lot of schools get very hot in late spring and early fall."

There are a lot of issues that would need to get worked out before a year-round school could start up in a large district like Madison. As Matthews points out, many schools are not air-conditioned. A deal would have to be reached with Metro Transit for bus service. Programming and daycare for the new breaks would have to be worked out with groups like the YMCA and MSCR.

Apparently it's easier for the State Journal to just blame MTI for why this isn't happening, though. And it is as lazy as when others blame every single problem in the world on Obama or Walker.

Last week, the State Journal ran an editorial challenging Matthews' claim that teachers were getting only a 0.25% raise. The piece points out that many teachers will get raises based on experience.

But the State Journal glosses over that there will be about 700 MTI represented employees who won't get any raise based on experience next year, according to Matthews.

Plus, that editorial ignores how the super small raise hurts those teachers just starting in their careers. The starting teacher's salary in the Madison school district is $36,528, per MTI's 2013-14 contact (PDF), which is pretty small considering the debt of many recent college students, the cost of living in Madison, and how damn hard the work is. (Full disclosure: I had a teaching degree before I realized the job was too thankless and relentlessly demanding, and decided to go do something else.)

Moreover, the starting wage for teachers will rise slower than inflation. Half of all teachers burn out and leave the profession within five years, so they aren't in it long enough to climb up the experience ladder to the point where they make a good wage. This doesn't make teaching an attractive option for our best and brightest.

Towards the end, the editorial board tosses the teachers a bone: "That said, most Madison teachers work hard at inspiring our children."

Wow, how supportive.

Compare that to the glowing language used in this editorial to promote an entrepreneurial conference: "Here come the entrepreneurs, those risk-takers with big ideas. They don't always succeed. But Wisconsin -- especially state leaders -- should keep encouraging them to try."

Not that this event wasn't worth celebrating, but if the State Journal editorial board treated these folks with the same level of scrutiny as they treated teachers, they would say things like this: "These entrepreneurs say they are 'building businesses' and 'employing people in the community,' but unemployment is still way too high. Also, as they want across-the-board tax cuts for their businesses that put an undue burden on the rest of the taxpayers, we suggest a system of merit tax breaks for businesses that reach certain evaluation goals no one has yet to agree on."

The worst part is that the unrelenting negativity towards MTI blunts the State Journal's stronger critiques. They've called for MTI and the school district to open up the hiring process to external candidates sooner, which is a very good idea. Madison was losing out on good teachers from outside the district by holding back job openings until late summer.

The new contract makes that change, and so the editorial board got one of the reforms it wanted. But that fact is buried towards the end of last week's editorial, preceded by cherry-picked financial stats.

I will be very sad if there's a time when the last contract between MTI and the Madison school district expires. However, the silver lining might be that critics like the State Journal editorial board wouldn't be able to keep blaming every problem in our schools on the union.

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