Scott Walker has failed Public Education in Wisconsin not only by his budgetary policies of drastically de-funding public education, but by creating deep political rifts in the institution upon which Democracy relies. In a letter to his legal mentor, George Wyeth, from August 13, 1786, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness…Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”
The nearly $1 Billion in cuts to Public Education did not give municipalities “tools;” it restricted their ability to manage their own districts’ finances, forced school boards and administrations into political battles at the expense of public education, and used children as pawns in an ideological battle for power and control. Wisconsin’s public education system was not in a crisis – until now. Thomas Jefferson would be outraged at Scott Walker’s treatment of Public Education in Wisconsin.
School Districts have fallen in line with Walker, based on political ideology, even before Act 10 or the Budget was passed. Districts such as New Berlin and Kaukauna have flaunted their success and new “freedom” – thanks to Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature. On March 16, 2011, New Berlin School District leaders joined Walker in a press conference to tout the benefits they would see in the biennial budget. New Berlin is facing revenue shortfalls in the longterm, thanks to the restrictions on revenue (property tax levy) raising imposed by Walker’s budget. This will result in larger class sizes, record early retirement of experienced teachers, and cutting of art, music, and other “extra curriculars.” New Berlin Administration refused to comment for this article, standing by their support of Scott Walker’s budget. There are numerous studies (peer-reviewed and scientific – sorry Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, ALEC won’t publish these studies) that detail the detriment of large class sizes and lack of teacher mentoring to the educational process. The lack of transparency in the District’s dealings with its own teachers alone is evidence of politics taking precedence over education. Days after meeting with NBEA representatives engaging in good-faith negotiations, District Administration stood with Scott Walker at the aforementioned press conference, without the teacher’s knowledge. The District shut out teachers in preparing the new handbook, in lieu of a contract. The handbook has created a greater rift between the District, teachers at the heart of the schools, and students. New Berlin has chosen politics over education.
Kaukauna schools, also heralded by Scott Walker as a resounding success story, has been reported on previously in Badger Democracy. The July 8 posting provided proof of the District manipulating its own budget to create a “deficit” crisis that only Act 10 could save. In reality, the District was in sound financial condition, its support of Scott Walker being a political – not fiscal or educational decision.
In some school districts, the effects of Scott Walker’s policies are being dealt with in a cooperative and realistic way. Most are anticipating a difficult 5 years, being hamstrung by Walker’s budget and Act 10. The Elmbrook School District is one of the most affluent and educationally successful districts in the state. The District is also very open and realistic about the impact on education with Scott Walker’s policies. Even though Act 10 “saved” the District $3 million by forcing cuts in teacher salaries (increase in benefit contributions is a pay cut – as indicated in district documents pointing to the average teacher pay reduction of over $450 per month – over 8%); the district is LOSING over $6 million in revenue due to tax levy restrictions in the budget. Payouts from the pension fund are up over 50% due to record teacher retirement (thanks to Act 10), and the district is facing a shortage of experienced, mentoring teachers. The fiscal outlook has Elmbrook facing a $17 million + deficit over 5 years. All thanks to the current budget, in one of the largest tax bases in the state. The only choice Elmbrook has – increase class sizes, close schools, cut class offerings, at the expense of the students’ public school experience. Elmbrook Schools Superintendent Dr. Matt Gibson was out of town and unavailable for comment. Mayor Steve Ponto told Badger Democracy that in spite of voter’s fiscal conservatism toward property taxes, they would prefer to pay a little more to support quality schools – as polls would support. In fact, the average homeowner will see a savings of about $400 (on a $350,000 home) on their ANNUAL property tax bill (teachers lose more than that on their monthly paycheck). To balance the books, and maintain current services, the increase would have been .5% annually for three years, at most. In addition, Elmbrook included teachers and the union in assembling the new handbook. The manual was approved by teachers and the board alike – not a perfect solution, but in the absence of collective bargaining rights, one that was inclusive and respectful of teachers, and in the end, the students. Thomas Jefferson would agree – a small price to pay to maintain quality public education. Scott Walker has deepened the political rift between teachers, school districts, taxpayers, families, and the children who so desperately need a public education to sustain the Democracy Thomas Jefferson envisioned.
Scott Walker has put money and power over the essential public education of our children – he has failed Wisconsin.