By Karen Royster, Institute for Wisconsin's Future
High schools students march around the Wisconsin State Capitol, arm in arm, singing new school cheers:
"We are the students – mighty, mighty students --
Everywhere we go – people want to know
why we’re here -- So we tell them,
We support our teachers – We’re here because of teachers…."
Across the state, school districts close while busloads of teachers, students and families converge on the Capitol in Madison. People are coming from diverse communities as well other states – North Carolina, Illinois, Kansas and Minnesota. Their goal is clear -- don’t let Governor Walker and conservative legislative leaders deconstruct the public sector unions and stop cuts in compensation for people who operate the schools, cities, counties and state programs every day.
The education community plays a central role in this massive protest. Wisconsin schools have faced cutbacks every year for over a decade – classes are getting larger, course options and extra-curriculars have been stripped away. Teacher wages have remained low which discourages many talented young people from choosing the teaching field. The newly elected Wisconsin Governor is making a difficult situation impossible.
Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill” is a draconian response to a manufactured crisis. In January 2011, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau told the Assembly and Senate that there was enough money for the biennium ending on June 30, 2011. Governor Walker pushed for $140 million in immediate tax cuts which created an instant deficit. He is now using that faux deficit as a pretext to undermine public sector unions by eliminating collective bargaining, reducing workers’ take-home pay and changing state rules so it will be difficult for unions to remain effective.
And the worst is yet to come. According to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, Walker will call for a $900 million cut in school funding over two years while preventing districts from raising local taxes to cover the losses. This would reduce revenue by about $500 per student in 2011-2012. Since revenue limits were established in 1993, the smallest increase has been $190. This will be the first decrease. This cut in state aid to schools drags state funding down to 2002-03 levels. “It would be the largest cut in the state's history,” stated John Johnson from the Department of Public Instruction.
With collective bargaining removed, school districts are expected to deal with shortfalls by cutting employee compensation – which is already low. As one teacher wrote in a local paper, “I have been teaching in a Wisconsin public school system for the past 11 years. My salary and insurance supports a family of four. In the first three years of my children's public education, they qualified for the federal reduced lunch program.”
The Wisconsin public education system is already in crisis. After more than ten years of consistent budget cuts, most schools have already eliminated art, music, physical education, language classes, and reverted to distance learning for math and science in rural areas. Wisconsin has the largest performance gap in the US between African American and white students for science and reading. Urban schools have lost counselors, at-risk intervention programs and other support services for at-risk youngsters. Karin Schmidt, a parent from Madison WI, has two sons -- nine and 15 years old. Both are in classes with students who have significant special needs. Says Karin, “My nine year old is in class with a young boy with non-verbal autism who has difficulty holding still, get’s frustrated and angry lashing out around him. A big funding cut and the teacher could lose her classroom aide and have no help dealing with this troubled child. It will be almost impossible to keep classes going each day and other children will not always be safe.”
There are ways to strengthen schools and reduce the performance gap but less pay for teachers and fewer resources in schools blocks any real initiatives to improve student opportunities to learn and succeed.