Wisconsin’s Scott Walker became the first U.S. governor to win a recall election on June 5 with 54 percent of ballots and massive voter turnout at approximately 57 percent.
Walker, Lt. Gov Rebecca Kleefisch, and four Republican state senators were recalled because of policies they implemented to restrict collective bargaining for state employees and require them to pay small portions of their health and retirement benefits. To fill a $3.6 billion state budget deficit, Walker cut education spending and gave local districts these policy options to make up the difference.
With 99 percent precincts reporting, all the recalled officials had retained their seats except for state Sen. Van Wanggaard.
“Voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions,” Walker said in his victory speech. Walker stopped his victory crowd when they began to boo his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D).
“Tomorrow we are no longer opponents,” he said.
Governor Improved Popularity
Walker’s percent of the recall vote was higher than in the general election he won in 2010. Barrett took 46 percent of the vote.
The Wisconsin recall attained national significance after protestors occupied the state capitol building and its streets for 15 months and 14 Democratic state senators fled the state attempting to forestall the bargaining curbs.
“Everyone in Wisconsin has been sick of hearing ‘This is what democracy looks like’ [from protesters], and we finally got to see it,” said Christian D’Andrea, an education policy analyst with the MacIver Institute. He said the mood among protestors in Madison, however, was still “optimistic.”
“The solidarity singers are back out,” he noted.
Teachers Unions Lose
State membership in the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country, has dropped by approximately one-third since Walker signed Act 10, the law limiting collective bargaining and ending automatic union dues withdrawals from state workers’ paychecks, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s National Education Association chapter, laid off 42 staffers last August, suggesting similar membership losses, said union watchdog Mike Antonucci. The NEA is the nation’s largest teachers union.
“We must recognize Wisconsin as the nation’s leader in reversing the archaic practice of forced unionism,” said Gary Beckner, executive director of the Association of American Educators, a nonunion teachers association. “Hopefully they will set the standard for the nation as we look ahead to new laws across the country aimed at curbing union power and reforming education.”
Unions and education politics in the state for years had created an “extremely rigid” public education system where local and state education officials could not “even have a discussion about certain reforms” until Walker came to office, said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin. For example, the unions’ refusal to tie teacher evaluations to student test results lost the state a chance at millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top grants.
Walker signed bills expanding the Milwaukee vouchers program to neighboring Racine, altering the state’s testing and accountability system, and allowing local officials to rethink their budgets for employee pay and benefits. The changes allowed school districts to save hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Now it’s clear those reforms will be here in the long term,” Bender said. “You’ll see local districts experimenting with reforms that work for them and their districts, which is something we desperately need.”
Choice Expansion Likely
Because the state legislative session has concluded until January 2013, the top education issue for the state in coming months—changes to the state’s testing and federal accountability system to receive a federal No Child Left Behind waiver—will be largely administered by the state Department of Public Instruction, D’Andrea said. He said it is likely Lehman will be appointed the chairman of the Senate Education Committee and hold some out-of-session hearings on the topic.
Given Walker’s win and a “75 percent chance” Republicans pick up four more state Senate seats and hold onto the state Assembly in November, Bender said, more school choice expansion is likely in 2013.
“You will see more flexibility, more ideas such as open enrollment, expanding charters, virtual learning, expanding the voucher program,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, school districts have begun to use the flexibility Walker’s policies have offered to experiment with merit pay for teachers, bid out health insurance, and rethink school structures. Oconomowoc, for example, reduced its high school teaching staff from 60 to 45 teachers, raising the baseline salary $14,000 and increasing their starting salaries to $50,000. It also required teachers to work four teaching blocks per day instead of three, achieving savings of $540,000.
The district is “offering more than any other district in the region, possibly state, for more work,” D’Andrea said. “A promising experiment.”
Relieved It’s Over
Wisconsin residents and school leaders are largely relieved the recall is over, Bender said.
“We’re thrilled—no two ways about it,” he said. “After eight years of [former Gov.] Jim Doyle, where nothing was going to change and you’re constantly on the defensive on education reform, now you actually have a chance of getting choice passed. It’s like those Claritin commercials where you take the film away and everything becomes clear.”
“Teachers Unions Have a Popularity Problem,” Hoover Institution, June 2012: http://www.hoover.org/news/daily-report/119291.