Education cuts may be the focus of those generating Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election, but new evidence shows his supporters have the better argument for education saving the state’s budget.
Most recently, the Republican governor’s office revised how public schools and technical colleges can calculate inflation-based teacher raises, altering the definition of “base salary” to exclude higher automatic pay for accumulating degrees.
Changes like this have helped move the state budget from a deficit above $3 billion to a state surplus, substantially through education cuts, restructuring how schools can manage their finances, and reallocating money.
The Wisconsin Department of Administration expects the state to complete its current two-year budget cycle with funds to spare—enough so that approximately $265 million can move to the state’s rainy day fund for the first time in a decade.
Focusing on Teacher Merit
Walker spoke to the state Republican convention in Green Bay on May 12, focusing his speech on his education reforms and improving the state’s business environment.
According to reports of the event, Walker emphasized his policies as part of a shift to a better teaching environment in the state.
“Under the old system [of collective bargaining], it was ‘last hired, first fired,'” Walker said in his address. “Our reform allows hiring and firing on merit, and pay raises on merit. We can keep the best and brightest and pay them more to keep them.”
Teacher retention rates have been significantly improved by Wisconsin’s move away from collective bargaining control, according to Christian Schneider, a fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
“When you look at the statistics, the only school districts that are losing teachers aren’t taking advantage of the tools that [Walker] gave them,” Schneider said. “School districts are now able to retain their teachers.”
Minimizing school district bureaucracy through reducing unions’ collective bargaining powers was also a focus of Walker’s speech.
The bill Walker signed and is now being recalled over, which limited collective bargaining to base salaries and allowed salary increases only up to the rate of inflation, have directly enabled local districts to save taxpayers’ money, said Mike Ford, WPRI’s research director.
“[This] gives school districts and school boards a remarkable amount of flexibility to allocate that money as they see fit,” Ford said. “[Walker’s reforms] have normalized the relationship between employers and employees.”
Since Wisconsin school boards are locally elected, control over education has just shifted hands, he added.
“There’s incredible flexibility for teachers and principals to begin making school-based decisions, which are akin to what charter school are now doing,” Ford said. “There’s so much research showing how important mission-based schools are. A huge part of the story that hasn’t been told is the capacity for school districts to make decisions.”
Union negotiators are further limited by Walker’s reshaping of the base pay rule.
Statewide school district restructuring of workers’ wages and benefits, now allowed because of Walker’s reforms, has equalized benefit costs for public and private employers, a significant change that will hurt the governor’s standing with government employees, Ford said.
“When [Walker] initially came out with his plan on collective bargaining, the unions complained bitterly because they said this has nothing to do with saving the school districts any money,” Schneider said. “He argued that this may be in some cases, but now we can take the money and have it work smarter, by implementing merit pay or some of these other things regarding union contracts like tenure. So it’s not necessarily giving more money but it’s having the money work better.”
Ford said he disagreed with the union claims that Walker has monopolized control over education decisions.
“He’s just giving [schools] policies,” Ford said. “It’s too early to tell, I think there’s great promise in it. So much of it is going to depend on what school districts do. Some school districts have just taken the old union contracts and made it their manual. Some more innovative school boards have changed the way they deliver education. Are school boards going to take advantage of this flexibility—and which are going to use it to increase teacher performance?”
Image by Mark’s Postcards from Beloit.