The Nation: Wisconsin Education Faces Hard Lessons

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Teachers join protesters marching at the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. On Tuesday, Governor Scott Walker unveiled proposals that would cut $834 million in state school aid over two years. i

Teachers join protesters marching at the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. On Tuesday, Governor Scott Walker unveiled proposals that would cut $834 million in state school aid over two years. Mark Hirsch/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Hirsch/Getty Images
Teachers join protesters marching at the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. On Tuesday, Governor Scott Walker unveiled proposals that would cut $834 million in state school aid over two years.

Teachers join protesters marching at the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. On Tuesday, Governor Scott Walker unveiled proposals that would cut $834 million in state school aid over two years.

Mark Hirsch/Getty Images

Meredith Clark is a freelance writer living in New York City.

"Care about educators like they care for your child." It was impossible to miss the thousands of signs with that message in the sea of 100,000 protesters who gathered at Wisconsin's Capitol on February 26. Since the start of the protests, teachers have been an integral part of the resistance to Governor Scott Walker's union-busting budget repair bill. The fight against Walker's bill is now entering its third week, and the governor has already announced that his 2011-13 budget will include more than $800 million in cuts to schools. It is a frightening time for Wisconsin's public school teachers — and students — and this is only the beginning.

The outcome of this standoff will undoubtedly influence the way state governments across the country negotiate with organized labor. But no matter what the national implications are, here in Wisconsin thousands of public education employees are facing painful pay cuts and layoffs. People who have dedicated their lives to helping others, who entered the profession fully aware that their salaries would never be large, are looking at uncertain futures. And these cuts and uncertainty don't affect only teachers but the quality of education available to students.

"I knew going into education that some people didn't like educators, and that's okay, but this is just disrespectful," said Jill Kammer, a Middleton special education teacher with thirteen years of experience. "Both my husband and I are special-ed teachers, and we went into teaching hoping that we could afford a house and have a solid income to support a family. Now we wonder if we'll be able to keep our home. It's not what we wanted for our family."

The fight over Walker's union-busting has consequences for teachers that don't exist for most other public employees. School districts across Wisconsin shut down, some for three days, during the first week of protests. The possibility of future union actions has teachers worried about their students. "I don't like being out of my classroom," said Michael Jones, another Middleton teacher. "Last week was terrible for me. I lost two days of teaching, my kids lost two days of learning. We love teaching. We love being in that room. We love that interaction."

Public employee unions have already said that they would accept increases in benefit contribution requirements in exchange for the removal of the collective bargaining ban. Walker has remained obstinate, insisting that local governments would have the tools to make spending cuts without layoffs if the unions would accept the end of collective bargaining. Because the governor is vehemently opposed to raising taxes (and has already pushed through over $100 million in tax cuts), arguing that union-busting is the only way out of the budget crisis is disingenuous at best and is at worst an outright lie.

The state's previous governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, proved there were less drastic ways to manage a budget gap in a troubled economy. Faced with a similarly sized deficit during the state's last budget deliberations, Doyle instituted furlough days, increased state employee healthcare contributions and used money-shifting budget tricks in the hope that the state's economy would improve before permanent education funding cuts became unavoidable. Doyle's 2009 strategy kept public jobs and services safe, but at the time even he admitted it was a stopgap measure. In 2011, a different governor might once again have looked for ways to increase revenue rather to avoid massive cuts in school funding, but Walker's budget suggests that he looks forward to a long and ugly battle with educators.

Wisconsin's projected budget deficit is not extraordinary compared to those of other states. Of the forty-six states facing deficits in 2012 and 2013, Wisconsin falls exactly in the middle of the pack, but most of the states in greater distress have not opened negotiations with the kind of draconian proposals that Walker has made.

The budget repair bill is only the first of what could prove to be a series of devastating blows to Wisconsin's public education system. The next state budget, which the governor unveiled on March 1, proposes $834 million in cuts to state school aid over two years.

If the state government fills the budget shortfall through cuts to public education, the impacts on communities around the state will be profound. School districts have already begun to send out preliminary layoff notices; at least nine Wisconsin districts have issued notices to their entire staffs (under state statute, districts must give notice by March 15 in order to lay off teachers; the only way to plan for what many say is essentially a doomsday scenario for some districts is to issue notices to all staff and wait until the budget passes to figure out what rules will apply when districts start making staff cuts). Union contracts currently specify how layoffs will be handled. But under Walker's budget repair bill, the union contracts would nullified, and districts would be able to lay off whichever teachers saved them the most money, without regard to tenure or performance or any other procedural requirement that the contracts included.

There are many ways to manage financial crises like the two-year $3.5 billion deficit; Governor Walker has consciously chosen to focus his attacks on school funding before even considering any other options. When Walker announced his budget repair bill, he was quick to say that eliminating collective bargaining was the only way to navigate the budget cuts he was about to announce. Under his bill, individual school boards will be the ones who are forced to make the difficult choices: slash the salaries and benefits of all teachers, or lay off some teachers and keep compensation higher for those who survive the cuts.

The teachers who expect to be targeted first are not going to go quietly. One Marshfield teacher with thirty-five years of experience told a reporter that she had already started contacting local business to tell them they will lose money if teachers like her are replaced by cheaper, younger teachers.

No matter how hard Governor Walker and his Republican allies try to insist that public employees like teachers are overpaid and should face the brunt of his cuts, Wisconsin's college-educated public employees earn, on average, 25 percent less than those in the private sector. The state ranks twentieth in average teacher pay and forty-ninth when it comes to starting teacher salaries. Further cuts to benefits and bargaining rights could lead the most qualified young teachers to other states or out of the profession entirely.

Read the rest of Meredith Clark's article at The Nation.

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