On Tuesday, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker introduced a state budget that would reduce statewide K–12 public-school funding by $834 million. According to Walker, these cuts will be mostly offset by the teacher pension and health-care contributions he’s seeking.
The state’s two largest newspapers both described Walker’s budget as “slashing” education funding. Another article said Walker was “stripping” school districts of cash. (Notice that the media save these apocalyptic terms for funding cuts; had Walker increased spending by $834 million, there’s a zero percent chance you’d see an article describing his “corpulent” funding increases.)
For the past several decades in Wisconsin, the media have been able to write the same story over and over about school-district “cuts:”
The [insert name] school district today announced it would need to lay off [number] of teachers due to what they deemed the [harsh/severe/draconian/disgusting] cuts in Governor [name]’s biennial budget. According to superintendent [name], the district will begin looking at cutting [math/English/science] classes and may need to discontinue the [sport] team.
In order to cut costs, students will only be taught 23 of the 26 letters of the alphabet. “Sorry ‘Q,’ you’ve been let go,” said superintendent [name] . . .
In Wisconsin, school funding is a mousetrap that always favors the mouse. Around two-thirds of local school districts are funded by the state; if the state has to reduce that aid, districts have the ability to make up the difference by raising dreaded property taxes — which is why, despite districts’ constant complaints about “cuts,” total school spending rose 12.7 percent between 2006 and 2010.
In response, Walker has taken the unprecedented step of reducing the total amount per pupil that districts can spend (by 5.5 percent), in order to keep his proposed aid reduction from simply being shifted to a local tax.
This is where you can draw a direct line between the collective-bargaining changes Walker is seeking in his now-famous budget-adjustment bill and the budget bill introduced this week: He is trying to give school districts a new, non-traditional way to handle budget reductions. Walker’s collective-bargaining changes would help school districts make up the money they will lose from the property-tax cap (around $470 million.)
For example, as a result of collective bargaining, 65 percent of Wisconsin school districts require their teachers to be covered by WEA Trust, a health-insurance company owned by the teachers’ union. Without collective bargaining, those districts can save up to $68 million by taking their health-care business to the open market, according to Walker’s estimate.
Curtailing collective bargaining would also alter the teacher-certification process, which is almost entirely controlled by the teachers’ union. Currently, certification is used to keep otherwise qualified individuals from competing for teacher jobs. With the licensure process altered, school districts could make better use of part-timers and volunteers who want to help schools but currently aren’t allowed in the door.
The list goes on. Walker’s plan would likely eliminate the heavy bias against younger teachers that current union rules have. Many districts have adopted “last in, first out” policies that defenestrate young, inexpensive teachers over older, salary-heavy teachers when budget cuts come. Without stringent union seniority rules, districts could ameliorate budget reductions by keeping greater numbers of fresh-faced and energetic teachers.
Eliminating teacher tenure. Increasing use of school choice and charters. Altering post-employment benefits. All are money-saving tools available to school districts that they couldn’t use when hamstrung by cumbersome teacher contracts.
Of course, just because Walker is offering state education reporters a much more nuanced and interesting way of covering the aid reductions, it doesn’t mean many will take him up on the chance. Many will just fill in the blanks of the traditional print lede with whatever hysterical predictions school administrators provide. By the time this budget is over, you’ll probably be hearing stories of how students have quit running lemonade stands and are now selling vials of their own blood on street corners to help their schools survive. Union leaders will tell tales (as they have in the past) of how teachers are being forced to eat dog food because of their low wages.
But this is why Walker has stood strong on his collective-bargaining proposal. If it passes, it can help school districts use their increased flexibility to spare a lot more teachers. If it doesn’t, be sure to buy stock in Alpo.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.