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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Why Recall Scott Walker?

From kindergarten to post grad, education needs support

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Although Wisconsin is a national leader in high-school graduation rates, college placement scores and commitment to public education, the state's educational system is now threatened by Gov. Scott Walker's historic cuts to schools at all levels:

  • Cuts to Public Schools: Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature made massive cuts to K-12 public schools: $747 million over the next two years—some of the steepest cuts made by any state in the country. On top of that, Republicans capped the amount of property taxes that local districts can raise, which eliminates roughly a billion dollars in extra revenue.
Walker has claimed that the Act 10 “tools” given to districts to require employees to pay more toward their health care and pension will offset the state cuts.
Of course, Walker has overestimated his “savings.” For example, he's claimed that Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) has saved $21 million because of his reforms. The actual figure, according to MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia, is $2.4 million in the 2011-12 school year and an estimated $7.7 million in the 2012-13 school year.
Walker's cuts are being felt in the classroom, according to a survey conducted by the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators (WASDA), which found that 9 out of 10 students attend a district with a net loss of staffing and that 59% of districts said they have increased class sizes for some grade levels.
The total loss of staff? About 3,400 public school employees have lost their jobs, including about 1,700 teachers, 775 support staff, 765 aides and 170 administrators.
  • Impacts on High-Poverty Districts: According to new analyses, Walker's reduced funding is hitting kids from high-poverty school districts the hardest.

According to a study by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (WCCF), “districts with more than 60% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch had their general aid from the state reduced by $558 per student, while those with the most well-off families had state aid cut by only $294 per student.”

WCCF's project director, Jon Peacock, said that “the state has been undermining the notion of equalizing opportunities for kids in poor communities.”

The disparity in funding was confirmed in a study released by the University of Wisconsin-Madison this month by James J. Shaw and Carolyn Kelley. Shaw and Kelley note that the state constitution guarantees school districts that are “as nearly uniform as practicable” and statutes require the state to provide a “basic” education for all students. But, Shaw and Kelley state, “We find that Act 32 [the biennial budget] makes matters worse by increasing funding gaps for poor and minority students.” The result? “These reductions in state aid decrease the number of educators, and the compensation and incentives for recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, especially in high-need districts. They reduce program support for the students most in need, while increasing class sizes and property taxes in high-poverty school districts,” Shaw and Kelley concluded.

  • Protecting and Promoting Voucher Schools: Although Walker and his Republican allies have made devastating cuts to public schools, they found money to prop up and expand the voucher school program beyond Milwaukee's borders. Not only is per-pupil spending the same as last year, while public schools' students have seen their funding slashed, but the Legislature found an extra $40 million from the state and MPS to pay for the program's expansion.

In addition, Walker has transformed the program from one intended to help the city's poorest students to a state subsidy for middle-income students. While the upper income level for a family of four was $39,113, the Republicans raised the income limit for a family of four headed by a single parent to $67,050 and for a family of four headed by a married couple to $74,050.

But is the expansion of the voucher program warranted? Study after study has shown that voucher school students are not performing any better than their public school peers—even though voucher schools should perform better, because they can select the students they accept.

Perhaps that is why Walker flip-flopped on his promise to make voucher students' achievements made public. Just weeks after making that very public vow in his January “State of the State” speech, his education reform package omitted voucher schools from any sort of accountability measures. 

  • After Graduation: What's facing students once they graduate from a Wisconsin high school? Even more cuts. Walker made historic cuts to the University of Wisconsin System: $250 million over two years—and then he asked for another $66 million in cuts because he had a budget deficit. That's resulted in a 5.5% tuition hike across the four-year campuses and no extra money for state-supported financial aid.

And despite Walker making public pronouncements about the need to address the skills gap in Wisconsin's workforce, the governor slashed state funding for the Wisconsin Technical College System by $71.6 million over the biennium, about a 30% cut in state aid.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie did not respond to the Shepherd's request to comment on the impact of the governor's education policies.