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By Dave Umhoefer October 13, 2011

Walker’s praise for teachers not all-encompassing

At the NBC News "Education Nation" summit in New York City on Sept. 26, 2011, anchor Brian Williams put Republican Gov. Scott Walker on the hot seat over his cuts to school funding in the 2011-’13 budget.

Williams opened by saying that among the 10 governors on the panel, only Walker was the subject of a social-media campaign questioning NBC’s decision to include him -- with one Twitter post Williams read comparing it with "having an arsonist talk about fire safety."

Then he read from a letter sent to NBC by Wisconsin educator Heather DuBois Bourenane. The letter expressed shock that they were "featuring Scott ‘Teachers are Thugs’ Walker at the summit."

Twice in the minutes that followed, Williams pushed Walker hard on the origin of "teachers are thugs" reference. Had Walker said it in the heat of the protests over his successful push to sharply curtail collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees?

Walker first said it "came from the Internet and everything else" and later flatly denied saying it. He then went further, as he described his encounters with teachers around the state.

"I’d have an open forum for an hour with teachers at our schools and they’d say, ‘Why are you pickin’ on teachers?’ And I’d say, ‘Go back to NBC, go back to YouTube, go back to all the statements I’ve made earlier this year and you’ll never find one time when I’ve said anything but great things about our teachers.’"

He continued: "The teachers who teach not only my kids but all the other children across the state of Wisconsin, are great public servants. What I’m doing is long term, it’s making a structural change so that more of them can stay in our classrooms."

Let’s see … high-profile statement, check. Strong comments, check. Important topic, check. A dispute over what was said, check.

Yes, this is one for PolitiFact.

So, is Walker right on the "thugs" comment and that he only had positive things to say about teachers?

First, "teachers are thugs."

It’s worth noting that prominent public officials -- as well as many political commentators --  have freely applied the term "thug" to aspects of the 2011 collective bargaining battle.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, said death threats were "thuggery," while former U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wausau, said Walker’s move against unions itself was "political thuggery."

Bloggers saw "thuggery" everywhere. In the damage done to the Capitol grounds. In the prank phone call made to Walker. In Walker telling that caller he considered planting troublemakers among protesters.

They also saw itin a union-supported boycott of pro-Walker businesses. In protesters’ angry confrontation  with Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman. And in a GOP open records request for emails sent by a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who compared Walker’s "style" to Joe McCarthy’s.

But did Scott Walker say "teachers are thugs"?

Certainly not in the sharp way that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did in an April 2011 interview with ABC News about teachers there.

"I believe the teachers in New Jersey in the main are wonderful public servants that care deeply," Christie said. "But their union, their union are a group of political thugs."

We could find no instance of Walker directly addressing teachers -- or their union -- in that fashion.

We did, though, find one instance in which Walker used a form of "thug" in discussing the reaction to his limits on unions.

It came in a March 10 appearance on conservative talk host Sean Hannity’s TV show immediately after Republican lawmakers approved Walker’s legislation, ending a stalemate with Senate Democrats who fled to Illinois and blocked a vote for more than three weeks.

Hannity asked Walker about "mayhem" at the Capitol, which was occupied for weeks by protesters. Hannity specifically mentioned Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald calling the Capitol "unsafe" for lawmakers trying to get to work, as well as reports of death threats against senators and protests outside Walker’s Wauwatosa house.

Walker answered: "People should not be coming into the state trying to intimidate lawmakers, offer up threats or anything else. That’s just not the way it’s done, at least not in the Midwest. And thankfully, again, our lawmakers stood up to those sorts of thuggery attacks, and we’re not going to allow that here in the state of Wisconsin. We can have good civil debate."

He added: "The people who work for state and local government have been decent, and I respect them throughout this process. But the people coming in from other states, that bring these sorts of tactics, just don’t belong here."

In the view of the state’s largest teachers union, the "thuggery" remark was aimed in part at teachers.

"Wisconsin teachers were a big part of the collective actions at the start of the movement he’s referring to -- and his take that there was ‘thuggery’ involved, and that it was out-of-state protesters driving these actions, was way off the mark," said Christina Brey, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

But Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor was not talking about teachers when he denounced "thuggery attacks." He said Walker was referring to death threats from out-of-state people. A multitude of threats of various kinds were cataloged by conservative observers and the mainstream media during the protests.

In our view, it’s clear Walker directed the comment at what he characterized as out-of-state protesters, without specifically mentioning teachers or the teachers union. He didn’t exclude teachers, though.

We asked DuBois Bourenane, the letter writer to NBC, about the "teachers as thugs" moniker she gave Walker. She is a post-secondary instructor whose Monologues of Dissent blog frequently blasts Walker as an enemy of public education. She joined in many of the protests at the Capitol, appeared on MSNBC’s "The Ed Show," and has blanketed Walker’s office with dozens of long, critical emails.

She told us it was not meant to suggest that Walker ever said those exact words, but merely a device to highlight her view that Walker disrespects teachers.

"I never said he said that and I’d be surprised if he did," she told us. "But I do think he actively promotes a rhetorical discourse that promotes the impression that teachers who disagree with his policies are bad for schools and dangerous and subversive."

This gets us to part two of this fact check.

To gauge Walker’s rhetoric regarding teachers, we examined dozens of Walker statements on education, on unions and on the Capitol protests that teachers figured so prominently in.

During the 2010 campaign, Walker made clear he felt public schools -- and specifically underperforming teachers -- were failing Wisconsin’s students. On his campaign website, he called for teacher evaluations, merit pay and other measures, without mentioning his plan to severely limit collective bargaining. He touted an expansion of voucher and charter schools.

But he also made clear the "vast majority" of teachers are succeeding, when he released his education plan during the 2010 campaign.

After his election, Walker pressed the case against union rules. In a Wall Street Journal opinion column, Walker wrote that the teachers union "hid behind" a labor contract when an award-winning first-year teacher was laid off because of seniority rules under collective bargaining.

In February 2011, after Walker unveiled his union limits and benefits cuts, major school districts across the state shut down when teachers flocked to protests in Madison.

Walker praised the "good professionals "who went to work and said those who skipped out had every right to be heard, "but I said I’m not going to allow for one minute the voices of the tens of thousands here to somehow overpower the millions of hardworking taxpayers of my state who know what were asking for is modest."

He was less diplomatic when referring to the teachers union.

He told conservative talk show host Mark Levin on Feb. 21, 2011, that the union’s motivation was only to get its hands on teachers’ dues payments. By announcing it would give in to Walker’s benefits cuts if he would drop the limits on collective bargaining, "they threw their members under the bus," he said.

The same day, Walker told Hannity that Republicans were "not going to be intimidated" by tens of thousands of protesters from Chicago, Nevada and New Jersey.

(PolitiFact Wisconsin rated False Walker’s Feb. 22 claim that "almost all" the protesters were from outside Wisconsin at that point, while noting that Illinois teachers unions had sent buses of protesters to Madison.)

In late February and early March, as the standoff with Democrats dragged on, Walker used a series of news releases to highlight deals that teachers had negotiated through their union -- or won in arbitration -- on pay, retirement benefits, overtime and working conditions.

Some of the releases singled out small but attention-grabbing items in particular districts. One was, "Almost $10,000 Per Year for Doing Nothing," a reference to a teacher emeritus program. Another was "Arbitrator Reinstates Porn-Watching Teacher." Another: "$6,000 Extra for Carrying a Pager."

Walker has taken steps to assert that he and his budget were pro-teacher. He frequently praises the public school teachers his two sons have encountered in Wauwatosa, and other outstanding teachers elsewhere.

At the NBC summit, Walker repeated his respect for teachers. "I understand there’s sometimes a difference of opinion, but in the end, we believe the right thing to do is put the power in the hands of the teachers," he said.

Brey, the statewide teachers union spokeswoman, says WEAC’s main beef with Walker is his actions, not his words. But she said Walker uses his words to depict unions as greedy (seeking an "expensive entitlement"); controlled by intimidating out-of-state "bosses"; and incompetent (with union hiring restrictions gone, Walker says, now we can keep the best teachers).

Criticism of the union, Brey contends, amounts to criticism of teachers, who elect their union representatives.

In our view, both sides have a gripe.

Teachers who belong to the union feel aggrieved by Walker’s comments about their union. But being critical of a group is not the same as being critical of individuals, and it’s a stretch to call Walker’s calls for educational reform and school choice an attack on teachers, per se.

On the other hand, it’s disingenuous for the governor to suggest that his praise of teachers is all-encompassing, but that when he’s talking about the protesters -- even mischaracterizing them as dominated by out-of-state interests -- and teachers organizations, it is limited.

Our conclusion

At the NBC Education Summit, Walker denied saying "teachers are thugs" and said he’s only said "great thing" about teachers.

Though we looked at two pieces of the statement, it essentially amounts to single claim -- that he’s only praised teachers.

There’s no evidence at all that he used the thug line -- and even the educator whose letter prompted the questioning doesn’t believe he said it. He did use the term "thuggery attacks" in response to a question about the protesters’ occupation of the Capitol, death threats against elected officials and protests outside his home.

Many Wisconsin educators joined in that occupation, but Walker says he was referring only to death threats by out-of-state people.

On the larger point of his rhetoric about teachers, we found Walker was careful about expressing his respect for teachers and other protesters, while offering criticism of the union that represents them.

So, Walker can accurately claim he has avoided direct rhetorical attacks on teachers as a profession. But we found Walker said less than "great things" about the union that represents teachers, and in his "thuggery" comment Walker left room for teachers to assume he was passing judgment on their protests at the Capitol.

Walker’s statement may be narrowly accurate, but it slips down the Truth-O-Meter when you examine the full context of his comments about the teachers union, teacher benefits and the protests.

Taken as a whole, his comments fall short of the high bar he set about saying only "great things."

We rate his statement Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

NBC News Education Nation Summit, video of Brian Williams questioning Scott Walker, Sept. 26, 2011

Scott Walker campaign, Education issues, undated

Scott Walker, audio of appearance on "The Mark Levin Show," Feb. 21, 2011

Scott Walker, video of appearance on "Hannity," March 10, 2011

Scott Walker, video of appearance on "Hannity," Feb. 21, 2011

Scott Walker, speech to GOP state convention, May 21, 2011

Scott Walker, video of his Brown Bag #26, June 8, 2011

Scott Walker, video of his Brown Bag #9, April 22, 2011

Scott Walker, video of his Brown Bag #32, July 14, 2011

Office of Governor Scott Walker, press release, "Collective Bargaining Has a Fiscal Impact Part 4," March 8, 2011,

Wall Street Journal, Scott Walker opinion column, "Why I’m Fighting in Wisconsin," March 10, 2011

Scott Walker, The Walker Plan to Make Wisconsin’s Education System World Class, undated

Wisconsin Education Action Council, press release on Scott Walker appearance on NBC’s Education Nation Summit, Sept. 26, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,Records detail threats against Walker, lawmakers, May 12, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Scott Walker says he should have prepared public earlier for sweeping changes," June 27, 2011

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says ‘out of staters’ account for almost all in Madison protests," Feb. 23, 2011

Andrew Breitbart Presents: Big Government, John Nolte blog, "20 days of left-wing thuggery in Wisconsin," March 18, 2011

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More by Dave Umhoefer

Walker’s praise for teachers not all-encompassing

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