Principals Tell Scott Walker: Your War on ‘Big Government’ Isn’t Helping Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 11, 2015 4 min read
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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker may be slogging away on the presidential campaign trail, but a group of his state’s principals haven’t let their grievances with him (and state education policy) fall by the wayside.

A group of 35 principals from the southern Wisconsin area wrote to Walker last month arguing that in the current policy and political climate, districts simply don’t have the resources and support to provide what they should to students. And as a result of policy shifts stretching back over 20 years, these district leaders say, local school boards have not only lost the local control considered vital by many communities, but the “competitive business model” now governing education will lead to “segregated schools.”

The letter, highlighted in an Aug. 10 article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, touches on many hot-button K-12 issues. However, to be clear, the principals aren’t being especially hostile to Walker in the letter. They express a desire to collaborate with him, for example. And while their list of concerns doesn’t merely concern Walker’s decisions, they say he should take action to change where school policy is headed.

The governor is famous for successfully pushing to strip public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights in 2011. But Walker also cut about $800 million in state aid to K-12 in the two-year budget he signed the same year. And at the same time the state also adopted lower property-tax caps for districts that cut into their ability to raise revenue.

Here’s what the 35 principals say has been the long-term impact of those budget changes, and the institution of the tax caps themselves that stretch back over two decades:

“We do not support recent budgets and the underfunding of public education. We believe budgets need to be adjusted to meet the needs of today’s learners. Since the onset of revenue limits in 1992, our school districts have been reducing and eliminating programs and resources. We are burdened by the cumulative effects of budget cuts resulting in increased class sizes, cut programs, and deferred maintenance plans.”

As my coworker Alyson Klein reported, the most recent budget Walker signed gives a slight boost to education over the 2015-17 biennial budget, although Walker had initially floated a $127 million cut to K-12 education in his proposed spending plan. And once again, lawmakers decided not to raise local tax caps.

‘Big Government’ vs. People Power

But what’s been the counter-argument from Walker? He has said one of the benefits of Act 10 has been to give districts more control, not less, over their budgets. For example, Walker’s office highlighted a news story about one local district’s decision to boost new teachers’ salaries above what they were before Act 10: “Although the pay scales are gone, the typical starting teacher pay for someone right out of school is about $38,700, which is higher than the $32,000-plus starting pay before Acts 10 and 32, he said.” (That same article, however, highlighted the uncertain fiscal climate overall for the district.)

And last year, the Wisconsin State Journal covered a new marketplace for teachers that was emerging under Act 10.

As for the “competitive business model” that the 35 principals say they fear damages public schools? Walker has expanded private school vouchers’ influence during his time in Wisconsin—for example, he eliminated the previous cap on vouchers that made them available on the statewide basis.

And then there’s the governance grievance from the principals. They reference reduced local control over curriculum, testing, and other matters. Ironically, regarding Common Core State Standards, Walker says he wants local districts to be able to decide whether or not to use the standards. But districts didn’t need Walker to raise that idea, because they already have that power.

“Governor Walker, you speak of the need to reduce ‘Big Government,’ and we see that you are doing so as it relates to eliminating positions in government, but the ‘power of the people, by the people, for the people’ is less in people’s hands than it once was,” the principals wrote, referencing what they see as the denuded power of locally elected school boards. "...These respected school board members have far less control over local decisions than they did in the past.”

Read the full letter from the principals below:

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Photo: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks to supporters as he announces he is running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination at the Waukesha County Expo Center, Monday, July 13, 2015, in Waukesha, Wis. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.