Published Online: June 11, 2012
Published in Print: June 13, 2012, as Win May Boost Wis. Governor's K-12 Hand
Includes correction(s): June 12, 2012

Recall Win May Boost Wis. Governor's K-12 Clout

Having beaten recall, Walker mulls action

Fresh off a victory in Wisconsin's June 5 recall election, Republican Gov. Scott Walker could have a fresh mandate to pursue significant changes to the state's school system and the night of his re-election stressed "education reform" as a major priority.

Advocates for those changes are hoping Mr. Walker focuses on expanding the role of charter schools and school choice programs in the state, initiatives he has supported in the past both in statements and through new laws. A fight over such issues, as well as the state's polarized political climate, also could complicate efforts to increase K-12 funding, which was cut significantly in the biennial 2011-13 budget.

The Republican governor's victory over Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, by a vote of 53 percent to 46 percent, also represents a bitter disappointment for the state teachers' unions, aft-Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which battled to have Mr. Walker ousted, although the unions expect the fight over his policies to continue.

"We still have members in nearly every district of this state. That means that they are powerful voices for what's happening and the truth about what's happening with students and schools," said Mary Bell, the president of WEAC, which is affiliated with the National Education Association.

Complicating the picture as of deadline last week was the fate of the state Senate, with Democrats claiming they'd taken control of the chamber through the successful recall of a Republican senator, who had not conceded as of week's end. Even if that control were to prevail, Democrats could lose it again in the next round of legislative elections in November.

"This is a fight worth having," state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate told the Associated Press after Mr. Walker's victory. "Some things are worth losing over."

Gov. Walker's aggressive and successful push for legislation curbing the bargaining rights of public employee unions, including those representing teachers, and mandatory contributions for pensions and benefits sparked the recall attempt.

Yearlong Battle

A newly emboldened governor would see his hand strengthened in any move to expand charter schools and to put them on a more equivalent fiscal footing with regular public schools, said George Lightbourn, the president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank in Hartland, Wis.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker celebrates at his victory party after defeating Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in a recall election last week. His steps to curb the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions set off a yearlong battle.
—Morry Gash/AP

"People are starting to now not just worship at the altar of increased funding and expecting that the results will follow. They're going to be more results-oriented," said Mr. Lightbourn.

Ms. Bell, the WEAC president, also is braced for a push for expansion of the state's school voucher program.

The private school voucher enrollment cap in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was eliminated in legislation signed by Mr. Walker in 2011, and he also expanded eligibility for school choice programs in Milwaukee and Racine.

But lawmakers stopped short of changing laws regarding voucher programs so that districts in cities like Green Bay and Menasha would have been automatically enrolled in them in 2012, and advocates hope Mr. Walker will follow up on those efforts and broaden the school choice program. He could, for example, revisit special education vouchers for private schools, since a bill introducing them was defeated this year. Mr. Walker could be encouraged by the increaseRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader in Milwaukee's private school choice program in 2011-12 of 2,200 students over the previous year.

During his 2010 campaign, Mr. Walker also supported increasing the number of charter school authorizers. Right now, the state cannot authorize a charter school, and for the most part, only school districts can. There were 232 charter schools in Wisconsin this past school year.

Bargaining Issues

In pressing for the collective bargaining and other union measures, Mr. Walker argued they were necessary to help the state overcome its budget deficit. The unions reacted with massive protests in Madison, the state capital, and pushed ahead with the recall effort, claiming that the governor's plans represented an unfair and politically driven attack on public workers.

Still, throughout the white-hot rhetoric, Statehouse protests, and recall election, Mr. Walker proved he wasn't intransigent about education issues in general when he worked with the state education community to pass a literacy initiative and create a new evaluation system for teachers, noted Miles Turner, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators.

But he also stressed that his group would not always agree with Mr. Walker’s agenda despite that track record.

"We anticipate collaboration on many issues in the reform package that we believe will help students in Wisconsin," Mr. Turner said. "We have serious reservations about the potential of school choice and [charters]."

Legislative Hurdles

Even though the state cut about $1.6 billion in school funding in the 2011-13 biennial budget (the average funding loss for districts was about 10 percent, according to a Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader), both Mr. Lightbourn and Mr. Turner said there was a distinct possibility that lawmakers, including GOP legislators, could examine increasing funding aid to schools in fiscal 2013.

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"The question will be, is the budget situation strong enough to say these budget reforms have worked?" said Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School Poll on Wisconsin politics.

The May edition of that poll showed 67 percent of respondents opposed cutting aid to public education as a way to cut state spending. (A plurality, 45 percent, viewed public-sector unions unfavorably.)

But Ms. Bell argued that a gubernatorial focus on charter and school choice initiatives could hurt the chances of any increase in basic education funding, which she thought will be an "exceedingly difficult" issue next year. She did say WEAC would continue to work with Mr. Walker on teacher evaluations and the implementation of any waiver for the state from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, an application for which is awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Education.

State of Play

For now, districts are still experimenting with the greater responsibility and power Mr. Walker has given them, said Mr. Turner of the district administrators' group. One district cut about 15 teacher positions and used the savings to pay teachers an extra $15,000 each to teach an added 90 minutes every day, he said. Such changes were made without the need to consult the union or a union contract, Mr. Turner said.

But the governor's actions have yielded disorganization and shrinking institutional knowledge, said Leah Luke, an English and Spanish teacher in the 1,200-student Mauston school district. Ms. Luke, the state's teacher of the year in 2009, has protested the changes. WEAC reported that teacher-retirement rates from 2011 were unprecedented compared with previous years' rates.

"It's kind of like a power vacuum I think in some districts," Ms. Luke said.

Vol. 31, Issue 35, Pages 21-22

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized Miles Turner’s description of what the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators’ posture toward Gov. Scott Walker will be regarding education policy.

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