Amid the Democrats' furor about Income Inequality there is a huge, obvious gap in the discussion. It exists; it is becoming greater; it is largely a result of globalization and technology. So, what can be done? One major, obvious answer is education reform, but that offends the teachers' unions so no Democratic politician dares go there. Into the void come Jeb Bush and Common Core with national standards and funding on the one hand, and Scott Walker with a record of state-level reform on the other.
At first blush, people think of Walker in terms of being a union-buster (good among conservatives, but not among the broader public). The more lasting question, with potential presidential implications, is why the people of near-purple Wisconsin elected him three times. Much of the answer lies in his education reforms, and the speed with which they have obtained results.
At the heart of Walker's agenda is the premise that government workers were taking too large a slice of the tax pie before delivering services to the public - particularly schools. Among the broad provisions of Act 10, of 2011:
- Public employees must pay 50% of the cost of pensions and at least 12.6% of the cost of healthcare;
- Pensions for elected officials and appointees were reduced;
- Bargaining rights for public employee unions were limited to wages, with increases limited unless approved in a referendum;
- Union membership for public employees became optional and payroll deductions for union dues were eliminated;
- Collective bargaining for the University of Wisconsin faculty was eliminated;
- Existing General Obligation bonds were restructured;
- Additional funds were allocated for Medicaid, the Department of Corrections, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
The immediate effect was to reduce costs for the local school districts, particularly those where union contracts required that healthcare be provided by very expensive contracts with the union-affiliated Wisconsin Education Association Trust. In systems like Milwaukee where projections had healthcare and retirement costs doubling in the next decade, a future crisis was averted. In the first year, school districts across Wisconsin hired a net 1799 teachers, and reversed trends by holding or improving class sizes, extracurricular programs, and student fee requirements.
Walker's FY2016 budget contains further financial and philosophical changes which will appeal to conservatives:
- Funding for the University of Wisconsin, which employs half of the state's 70,000 workers, will be reduced by 2.5%, or $300 million over the next two years. In exchange, the chancellors are freed from much legislative oversight giving them the ability to adjust programs, manage costs, and raise tuition.
- The requirement that school districts utilize Common Core standards is eliminated, and funding for "Smarter Balanced" testing in line with the Common Core curriculum is eliminated in favor of state-developed tests. What those tests will be is unclear, but those opposed to Common Core's federally-mandated tests are happy.
- Caps on school vouchers for private, largely religious schools (up to $7800 per student for families with incomes up to $44,000), are also eliminated with requisite increases in state funding.
As is true in the rest of the country, it will take years to establish baselines for new tests to determine whether educational reforms are really resulting in better learning by the students. That said, since Scott Walker became governor in January, 2011 he has done all of the things that conservative reformers would like to see - local control and accountability; reduced union influence; parental choice - and the financial results are good. It is good for the politicians; let's hope it is good for the students.
This week's video is a clever campaign ad by Congressman Roger Williams of Texas.
bill bowen - 2/19/15