If U.S. schools continue to lose too many smart, dynamic college graduates to the private sector, it won’t just be current teachers who are stung by these attacks; the nation’s students stand to suffer, too.

(Editor’s note: This is a slightly longer version of the Default Lines column published in the March issue of eSchool News.)

Conservative lawmakers are targeting educators as part of a broader attack on public-sector employees in states from coast to coast—and the fallout could have lasting implications for the nation’s students.

Consider these examples:

• State legislatures in Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Indiana are among those considering new bills that would eliminate or severely curtail teachers’ collective bargaining rights in negotiating contracts.

• Wyoming lawmakers are entertaining a measure to end teacher tenure, which would allow the immediate suspension or firing of teachers for any reason not expressly prohibited by law.

• New Jersey is one of many cash-strapped states looking to cut public employees’ pensions to help balance their budgets.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently skipped a $3.1 billion payment to the state’s pension system as part of an effort to cut benefits for public workers, and some conservative lobbying groups are suggesting that states be allowed to declare bankruptcy to escape their debt—including, of course, their obligations to state pension plans.

For more on school labor-management relations:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Wisconsin protests grow as teachers balk at proposed legislation

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

Supporters of these measures say they are necessary to cut wasteful spending and rein in lavish benefits for public-sector employees. They cite a few outlandish examples to prove their point, implying these are the norm and not the exception.

For instance, in lobbying for a bill to restrict collective bargaining in Indiana, the state’s education department has described some strange contract stipulations from districts around the state.

According to the Associated Press, these include a clause that says teachers’ lounges must be “attractive, comfortable, and spacious” in the School City of East Chicago—and one that says carpets must be vacuumed using a “filtration method that filters at greater than 99 percent efficient at 0.3 micron” in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

Yep, those teachers sure do drive a hard bargain. Now we know what’s holding back our schools’ success; they’re clearly too busy trying to vacuum the carpets correctly.

Listening to the torches-and-pitchforks brigade who regularly call talk radio programs and lambaste unions, you might think the negotiating power of teachers and other public-sector employees is the main reason so many states are awash in red ink. But the facts don’t bear this out. As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has noted, there is little or no correlation between public employees’ collective bargaining rights and states’ current budget situations.

For more on school labor-management relations:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Wisconsin protests grow as teachers balk at proposed legislation

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

“Some states that deny their employees bargaining rights—Nevada, North Carolina, and Arizona, for example—are running giant deficits of over 30 percent of spending,” he wrote in a blog post earlier this year. “Many [states] that give employees bargaining rights—[such as] Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Montana—have small deficits of less than 10 percent.”

What’s more, he wrote, “… over the last 15 years the pay of public-sector workers has dropped relative to private-sector employees with the same level of education. Public-sector workers now earn 11 percent less than comparable workers in the private sector. … Even if you include health and retirement benefits, government employees still earn less than their private-sector counterparts with similar educations.”

Proponents of these bills argue that teacher contracts often stand in the way of real education reforms aimed at helping students. And while there is some truth to this idea, making public employees the scapegoat for taxpayers’ wrath is also a convenient shell game that diverts attention from the fact that conservative lawmakers are pushing for more tax cuts for the wealthy at a time when middle-class families are suffering.

“The irony should be lost on no one that the very people who seek to deprive public employees of their federally protected right to organize, and to deny them a portion of their health and pension benefits, are the ones who have championed giving tax cuts to millionaires, further exacerbating the fiscal crisis,” says the American Federation of Teachers. “Requiring sacrifices from working people but not from the very wealthy is not a viable solution.”

Are there reforms that should be made to schools’ collective bargaining practices? Yes, but lawmakers should leave these reforms to local municipalities—a concept that I thought was central to the conservative movement.

For more on school labor-management relations:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Wisconsin protests grow as teachers balk at proposed legislation

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

Beyond the hypocrisy of a party that believes in less government control passing sweeping legislation that infringes on the rights of individuals, these attacks on public school employees will make it harder to recruit and retain more highly effective teachers in our nation’s schools—something policy makers and education leaders from both sides of the political spectrum agree is important.

President Obama is asking for money in his budget for fiscal year 2012 to recruit 10,000 new math and science teachers over the next few years to fill what experts say is a dire need. How likely is it that the best and the brightest young minds are going to want to enter the teaching profession, when they see educators’ benefits being hijacked?

If U.S. schools continue to lose too many smart, dynamic college graduates to the private sector, it won’t just be current teachers who are stung by these attacks; the nation’s students stand to suffer, too.