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Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011

Gov. Walker's Plan: Tooling Wisconsin Teachers

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When I had a summer newspaper internship in college, reporters in Dayton, Ohio, used to hang out at a hole-in-the-wall bar presided over by a bawdy nightclub singer named Betty Greenwood.

One of Betty's most popular routines was to call some guy out of the crowd, look directly into his eyes and sing a parody of the old Brenda Lee song, “Fool Number One.”

Betty's version went: “Am I tool number one or am I tool number two? How many other girls have been tooled by you?”

As the guy smugly beamed to his friends in the audience, Betty then would pivot to add the same twist to the lyrics of “A Little, Bitty Tear Let Me Down.”

When Gov. Scott Walker claims he has provided school districts throughout the state with the “tools” to deal with the massive state cuts to education, he is singing Betty's song.

Walker uses the word “tool” as a euphemism for laying off teachers and cutting their wages.

That is not a way for local school districts to maintain educational standards in the face of a billion-dollar cut in state education funds. It is simply passing along the worst devastation of public education in the nation.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), based in Washington, D.C., examined state budgets passed in 24 states so far this year (covering two-thirds of the nation's students). It found Wisconsin's slashing of student spending was the largest in the nation.

Wisconsin's reduction in per-pupil spending in real dollars from fiscal year 2011 to 2012 was $635 per student, the most in the country. 

Wisconsin's percentage reduction in aid to education per student, 10%, was third in the nation among those major states, trailing only Illinois at 12.9% and Texas at 10.4%.

Oh, but the governor's right-wing supporters say, Walker was faced with a horrendous budget deficit leaving him no choice but to make drastic education cuts.

Wrong again.

It's true almost every state faced tough budget decisions because of the end of President Barack Obama's federal stimulus spending that prevented the country from plunging into a second Great Depression and the stalling of the economic recovery as congressional Republicans consistently vote against job creation.

However, Wisconsin's budget problems have been relatively modest compared with most other states.

According to CBPP statistics, Wisconsin faced a $1.6 billion budget deficit for fiscal year 2012, which began in July.

Yet, its per-pupil spending reduction for 2012 topped that of second-place New York, which faced a $10 billion budget deficit, California with a $23 billion deficit, Ohio with a $3 billion deficit and Texas with a $9 billion deficit.

On the list of states with the biggest percentage reductions in education, Wisconsin stands out like a sore thumb, with its mild $1.6 billion budget deficit placing third behind Illinois and Texas ($5.3 billion and $9 billion shortfalls, respectively) and deeper education cuts than California, with its $23 billion budget deficit.

A Vicious Decision

Walker, almost alone among the nation's governors, made a conscious—and vicious—decision to balance most of his state's deficit on the backs of children and teachers.

Cullen Werwie, Walker's spokesman, responded to CBPP's damning statistics by saying: “Unlike other states, Gov. Walker reduced spending and gave school districts the tools to help manage their budgets.”

There's that word again, “tools.”

What that really means is as a result of rolling back decades of collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin teachers, local school districts without contracts are free to fire as many teachers as they want and cut the wages of those they still employ to absorb the drastic cuts.

That damages local economies throughout Wisconsin as teachers and other school employees lose jobs and income.

The mainstream media is complicit every time it quotes the governor and his spokesman about the tools provided to local school districts without explaining exactly who is getting tooled.

That has also been true of the national media during the current economic crisis. To an alarming extent, much of the media seems to have implicitly adopted the tea party philosophy that cuts in public spending, while perhaps painful, are both necessary and good.

That is an economically ignorant across-the-board position during an unemployment crisis.

At a time when the private sector is not creating enough jobs to keep up with population growth, cutting public spending eliminates even more jobs, causing the economy to continue spiraling downward.

This is especially true when the jobs we are destroying are those of teachers, since they are the ones who give all our children the education and skills necessary to get hired and succeed in family-supporting jobs.

The only people we are tooling are ourselves.