Wisconsin state budget is bad for kids

Thomas Beebe
Executive Director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools

“It’ll be OK,” Gov. Scott Walker said last winter when he announced a budget that snatched away more than $800 million in opportunities to learn from Wisconsin public school kids. “I’m giving you the tools to make it work.”

Well, the tools the governor gave local school districts are the right to force teachers to pay more toward their retirement, and the option to unilaterally require educators to kick in more for their health care. The problem is that the tools, along with any money some of them might have left over from federal jobs funds, are one-time solutions. These tools can't be used again unless school districts ask teachers to give up even more of their take-home pay.

By law, all school districts have to balance their budgets. They always have, and always will. That’s not the point. The point is that the governor has hijacked the language. Educational accountability isn't about balancing the budget, it’s about giving kids opportunities to grow up into good, contributing adults. That’s not what Gov. Walker wants to talk about.

The details aren’t all in, but anecdotally we know that children have lost many of their best teachers to early retirement, school districts are spending less on education than they did last year, and many of the programs and services students need to become “good adults” have been cut.

Perhaps the most troubling part of Gov. Walker’s budget is what it could do to the teaching profession. A recent MSNBC story talks about the crisis in the nation’s classrooms because too many teachers have little or no experience. That is only exacerbated in Wisconsin where teachers, who have borne the brunt of state government’s attacks on public education, are retiring in large numbers.

Ellen Lindgren, school board president in Middleton-Cross Plains, wondered about the future of teaching, asking how those to whom we entrust our kids have “become the enemy.” “My greatest fear overall is that this will have an incredibly negative effect,” she said of the rhetoric. “Long-term, how do we expect to attract talented and bright people into the education workforce that has more and more expectations of it but has been so maligned and marginalized?”

After the governor’s one-time tools have been used, then what? After federal jobs funds, which run out this year, have been used, then what? After the savings from mass teacher retirements for the 2011-12 school year have been spent, then what?

“Then what” is the further loss of opportunities for our kids as districts struggle to balance their budgets.

We can’t afford to wait for that to happen. We know enough right now to understand that this experiment is producing devastating results. For example, Darin Von Ruden, farmer and president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said that around the Dairy State there are “31 [agriculture] programs that laid off teachers, reduced teaching hours, or were eliminated.” And remember, that’s this year. The full extent of the actions won’t be felt until further down the road.

Similar stories are coming in from all over the state, but even those districts managing to balance their budgets today know what is coming.

The superintendent in Cadott, a small district in northwest Wisconsin, said that because of the state budget “the burden shifts to local taxpayers’ backs, and our poverty district-wide is growing.” The word from New Auburn, another small district, is that the governor’s tools are just Band-Aids. “This year we’ll be okay,” the superintendent said, “but next year, anything can happen.”

Right now, we don’t know the answer to Ellen’s question or what lies ahead for our children. All we have is anecdotes. Those stories, however, are devastating to the individual kids, schools and communities that live them. We’ll keep an eye on the data as the damage accumulates, but unless we act soon all we’ll be doing is chronicling the crisis and counting the casualties.

Thomas Beebe is Executive Director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, a coalition of school districts, students, parents groups, teachers unions, faith-based organizations, other groups and many individuals committed to changing the way Wisconsin funds its public schools.