Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, is quiet and thoughtful in one-on-one conversations. She's a middle-aged, cheery, bespectacled woman whose dimpled face is surrounded by a thick corona of whitish-gray hair.
But when fighting for her members, Bell forcefully projects her belief in teachers' right to respect, decent pay and union representation. At a rally with tens of thousands at the Capitol on a snowy, bitter Feb. 26, Bell expressed outrage at Gov. Scott Walker's proposals for the near-total stripping of union rights for teachers, librarians, highway workers, prison guards and other public workers across the state. Yet her anger was tempered by her humor and her belief in Wisconsinites' fundamental commitment to fairness and public education.
The rhetoric Mary Bell used that day about "Wisconsin values" was no stretch for her, because she perceives herself as a typical Wisconsinite, sharply different from the image of the insular Madison insider, as Walker likes to portray his enemies.
Still, Bell's decisions since the February budget battles have been controversial, even among supporters - particularly her call for teachers to leave schools to protest at the Capitol. More recently, WEAC declined to be part of the bipartisan effort - led by Walker and Wisconsin education superintendent Tony Evers - to create a new system of accountability for state schools.
But Bell is confident that the state's citizens are on WEAC's side, even as the organization issued layoff notices to 42 employees this week in response to Walker's union-weakening law.
"The general public's reaction was very heartening and very reflective of the Wisconsin I know," she says. "There is a sense of fairness and how things should be done. When that gets offended, they will come out and speak out. There wasn't much about this process that people believed was fair."
Born in central Wisconsin in Adams Township, Bell is the granddaughter of farmers and daughter of parents who ran a TV sales and service store. Deeply devoted to her family, she has more than 100 cousins. (In some ways a private person despite her visible public role, Bell declines to discuss her age or marital status.) In her rare down time, she is an aficionado of murder mysteries. She also enjoys folksinging, writing songs and performing. "Music is something I find deeply exciting," she says.
Bell was originally headed toward a career in library science at UW-Oshkosh when her experience in a mentoring program persuaded her to adopt teaching as her career and lifelong passion. She compiled some 30 years of teaching experience, mostly in Wisconsin Rapids, serving as a library media specialist who had the chance to work closely with students on their research.
"I got to teach a bit of everything, from history to home economics and everything in between," she says. "I was fortunate to be there at the dawn of the media explosion, and to have a chance to teach kids how to research things effectively with all the materials available."
Bell's activism began roughly 30 years ago. She was asked to help out in Wisconsin Rapids when the teachers union encountered difficult negotiations with a local school board. Bell found herself swept up in representing other teachers and serving as their voice. "I got motivated when the bargaining team approached me to help," she recalls.
As her educational career progressed, Bell felt drawn more deeply into the activities of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. "I saw the value of what our members provided to kids, the quality of our professional development, and the sense of mission of the organization."
Bell became increasingly involved in statewide and national work for the union. She served four years on the WEAC board before winning election as secretary-treasurer. In 2007, she ran for the presidency of WEAC and won her first three-year term.
"All the intermediate steps along the way were important learning experiences," she says, enabling her to tackle the demanding full-time role of president.
Bell still sees herself as an educator rooted in Wisconsin Rapids, but her full-time schedule as WEAC president keeps her in constant motion. Her days start early conferring with WEAC executive director Dan Burkhalter and checking in with fellow WEAC officers. "I do a lot of talking with constituents and policymakers," she says. "I especially do a lot of talking with our members when they are done with the school day."
Bell's nights and weekends are also consumed with meetings, speeches and events around the state. She took part in the "Walkerville" campout near the Capitol this summer, explaining to passersby what she sees as the destructiveness of Walker's proposals on education.
Supporters have called Bell a calm force sitting at the eye of a political hurricane in conflicts with Gov. Walker.
Her first major crisis began Feb. 11, when Walker announced his plan to strip the members of her teachers union, and some tens of thousands of other public employees, of most of their collective bargaining rights. Walker also proposed benefit reductions estimated by Bell to cost teachers about one-sixth of their paychecks.
Bell responded by calling on her members to attend rallies at the Capitol to protest Walker's budget repair bill. The teachers' response to Bell's call was overwhelming: At one point, 24 school districts were closed down. In Madison, fully two-thirds of teachers took part in the protests.
The teacher walkouts upset some parents and even a few union members. Among the outraged Republicans was state Sen. Glenn Grothman (West Bend), who told Isthmus, "It would be unprofessional for a public schoolteacher to proselytize to young children about their political beliefs. To literally walk off the job shows that many teachers feel that the schools are not about children, parents or taxpayers, but are operating for the benefit of teachers."
James Buchen, vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's largest business lobbying group, believes that while Bell and the teachers were within their rights to protest, their approach was extreme.
"They're entitled to engage in organized protests," Buchen stated. "Some of the tactics were beyond what seemed beyond appropriate - such as threatening behavior - but maybe none of that was done by teachers."
The 98,000-member WEAC and the 24,000-member Wisconsin State Employees Union tried to strike a compromise by offering to accept Walker's proposed benefit cuts if workers could retain their collective bargaining rights. Walker turned down the offer - "We're broke and we have nothing to negotiate" - and thereby reinforced the perception that he would settle for nothing less than breaking public workers' unions.
In a six-week period of daily protests inside and outside the Capitol that drew tens of thousands of union members and supporters, Bell was a frequent speaker. The protests often dominated the national news and captured international media coverage, drawing comparisons to the round of nonviolent protests in Cairo that had just toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Betsy Kippers, WEAC secretary-treasurer, credits Bell with capably leading a fierce battle to protect union rights, the Wisconsin middle class and public education.
"It's hard to think of a time that's been more wild and crazy, with the survival of our members, the survival of our union and the survival of public education all being fought over at one time," Kippers says. "It's very difficult to deal with another new crisis, a new idea to inform our members on, but Mary is very much a systems thinker who processes things with other people. She stays calm and systematic in a crisis and doesn't panic."
Robert Peterson, the newly elected president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, also praises Bell's leadership in tough times.
"The work that WEAC has done to fight the governor's bill and the work that Mary Bell did engendered much more positive attitudes and much more cooperation across the union. Mary put out a call to get teachers to Madison, and people responded. She brought along people who had never been involved before."
Wisconsin has long been known for its tradition of quality public education.
"A diploma from a Wisconsin high school has always meant a tremendous amount across the nation because our schools are so highly thought of," Bell says. "There's a lot of evidence that our public investment in education has paid off in our quality of life and the quality of our workforce. It certainly won't be improved as public schools for poor kids lose libraries, music, art, languages and phys ed."
In the past, conservative Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson championed "school choice" at a relatively small scale and, in his boldest move, attempted a takeover of the Department of Public Instruction in 1995 that was ruled unconstitutional.
In contrast, Walker has succeeded in enacting huge cutbacks in public education and an expansion of school voucher programs. His budget, passed by the Legislature in June, cuts $800 million from public education. Walker has argued that his approach will offer school boards more tools in balancing their budgets and parents more choice in selecting schools.
"The reforms that we passed...long term will be more important for what they do to reform education than for what they do to reform the budget process," Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Giving every local school and every school itself the opportunity to really focus in on the priority of reforming education and not just dealing with a contract and all the nuances of that, I think that's where the long-term implication is that it is going to make education better in Wisconsin."
Walker's position has found strong support among the business community. Buchen of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce argues that scaling back public union rights and education funding was needed to meet the state's budget shortfall. "I'm sure that because of the changes, there are offsetting savings in insurance costs for school districts," he says. "It's a short-term situation to balance the budget this time around."
As for the increased co-pays and deductibles that teachers will now face, "That's what the rest of the taxpaying public already deals with," Buchen says.
However, critics of Walker and the Republicans claim that the education cuts will trigger widespread layoffs, increases in classroom size, the elimination of numerous programs and the decline of supplementary services such as libraries, nurses, social workers and counselors.
In Milwaukee, for example, Peterson of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association estimates that the budget will mean the loss of a third of professional staff at his school. Milwaukee Public Schools has already laid off some 500 nonrepresented workers, and an additional 335 teachers, education aides and paraprofessionals are scheduled to be downsized by fall.
Walker's budget also limits localities' ability to restore educational programs and staff by raising property taxes. "This provision is totally undermining the concept of local control, which was a conservative mantra for decades," says Jack Norman, research director for the Institute for Wisconsin's Future. "All taxing authority is taken away from local governments."
The budget lifts the enrollment cap and income limits for Milwaukee voucher schools, as well as expanding the school choice program to Racine. The Walker-modified choice program would allow students whose two-parent families earn up to about $70,000 to attend any school accepting vouchers in Milwaukee County. The plan would provide vouchers of about $6,100 to any private school accepting the vouchers.
"This will cause a vast flight of middle-class kids out of Milwaukee public schools when parents see how class sizes are increasing and programs are being cut back," predicts Larry Miller, a Milwaukee school board member and former educator.
Bell sees Walker's changes as funneling resources away from a public system in dire need.
"The facts provide clear, nonpartisan evidence that the expansion of private school vouchers in Wisconsin is wrong," she argues. "It's absurd to ask taxpayers to fund a new government subsidy for private schools at the same time nearly $1 billion is cut from public schools. Vouchers divert funds from public schools, lack accountability and don't meet the needs of special needs students."
Bell believes that Walker's strategy has been shaped by the most shortsighted leaders of Wisconsin's corporate class, coupled with right-wing national forces like the American Legislative Exchange Council, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, and the Koch brothers.
She stresses that there are many business leaders in the state who still value the state's excellent public education and seek to promote its continued success. "But there have always been elements in the business community that have not valued education and workforce development," she says. "The impetus for these changes is clearly not coming from people who value public schools. And it's not just coming from people inside the state of Wisconsin, or you would not see similar moves in so many states."
Suspicious of working with Walker, Bell has led WEAC in refusing to join an official effort to improve educational assessment promoted by the governor and state education superintendent Tony Evers. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie chided WEAC, saying, "While it's disappointing that WEAC is choosing not to participate in an important education initiative that could be a model for the nation, the design team will make sure that teachers who are interested in being a part of the process to improve education in Wisconsin are able to have their voices heard."
Instead of participating with Walker and Evers, WEAC will continue with its own efforts, Bell says.
"Our union of educators supports efforts to improve accountability measures for Wisconsin schools, because that's what our students deserve," she says. "However, trying to address difficult problems requires leaders at the table to have shared trust, respect and mutual commitment to public schools. There's no evidence of shared values in three of the four leaders of this task force - they just slashed state funding for schools and took away the right of educators to have a voice in their schools. Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites called upon these elected leaders to listen, but they would not."
Despite the setbacks for WEAC, Bell remains confident about the heartfelt commitment of ordinary Wisconsinites to the preservation of public education, saying that nearly seven out of 10 state citizens support union rights for public workers.
But she worries that it may take awhile to solve the problems she sees Walker creating.
"What we're facing with the budget and other legislation is the destruction of public service and public education in this state," Bell says. "It will take decades to repair the damage and return the government to serving the middle class and the working class of Wisconsin."