What’s Next for Wisconsin?

By Sean Cavanagh — March 14, 2011 3 min read
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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to curb collective bargaining rights is now the law of the land in his state, barring legal barriers, or other unexpected obstacles.

Teachers will presumably be left with less leverage in contract negotiations—and less in their bank accounts—since they’ll be asked to pay more for pensions, and probably for healthcare, too.

The new landscape that emerges in Wisconsin school districts will be studied by observers far beyond the state’s borders. State and local elected officials want to see if it brings the cost savings and administrative flexibility that Walker has promised. Local school officials, meanwhile, want to know how changes they’ve heard debated for weeks on end will play out in their districts.

Here are some of the most pressing political and policy questions to keep an eye on over the next year in the land formerly known as Battleground Wisconsin:

Does it make sense financially? Wisconsin school officials say requiring teachers to contribute to their pensions will save districts money. But some are skeptical that all of the changes to collective bargaining and health care, taken together, will bring enough savings to make up for Walker’s proposed deep cuts to K-12 and the tax limits he wants to impose.

How will the role of unions change at the local level? Even though their bargaining powers have been taken away, unions could still have considerable organizational and political clout, as my colleague Stephen Sawchuk recently explained. In some states, teachers join associations in which they discuss wages and other issues with administrators, though those talks aren’t legally binding.

Will unions fight back in future elections? In Wisconsin and around the country, union leaders say their members will be a potent force in elections in 2012 and beyond. They also point to polls as evidence that the public is with them. Maybe so. But a lot can change over the course of year, and it’s possible that efforts by Walker and other Republican governors will be viewed more positively, as state and local officials argue that efforts to restrict bargaining have averted tax increases and even deeper spending cuts than are already being imposed on local schools.

Will the law bring discord at the local level? Wisconsin district administrators and boards will have the power to make major changes to healthcare and other areas with little union input. But will they follow through? District administrators, particularly in smaller communities, work in close quarters with teachers and other employees, who are often their neighbors and sometimes their friends. Now those neighbors and friends will have just absorbed significant cuts in compensation and what they see as essential workplace rights. Will their resentment linger? Does it matter?

How will the law affect the composition of the workforce? A speculative question, I grant you. But in one Wisconsin district I visited recently, district officials said an unusual number of their teachers had said they would retire if Walker’s measure went through, because of worries about increased pension and healthcare costs. Maybe these changes will result in school districts saving money, if veteran educators retire and younger folks come on board. Will new college graduates be scared away by the overall push to cut teachers’ benefits and elected officials’ tough talk toward educators and unions? Advocates of merit pay often argue that paying teachers on the basis of performance, rather than seniority, will help draw a new, talented class of professionals into the classroom. Will Wisconsin’s move to raise teachers’ retirement contributions (and similar proposals in Ohio, Florida, and other states) change aspiring educators’ views of the financial stability the profession can provide?

Of course, it’s possible that as districts are forced to make more layoffs and in the years ahead, educators will be so desperate to find and keep jobs that benefits cuts won’t matter much. And some teachers may buy the argument put forward by Walker and others, which says that educators need to chip in more for their benefits.

Now that the sit-ins and street demonstrations in Madison have faded from view, which aspects of the Wisconsin collective bargaining plan command your attention?

Photo: Wisconsin’s controversial amended “budget repair” bill, which strips most collective bargaining rights from teachers and other public workers, sits on Gov. Scott Walker’s desk after a ceremonial signing on March 11 in Madison. (Morry Gash/AP)

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