Senate Dems Attack Education Reforms

MacIver News Service | News Analysis

[Madison, Wisc…] The Wisconsin Legislature will not be in session again until January. However, newly elected Senator John Lehman (D-Racine) did not want to wait that long to talk about the damage, he believes, Republicans have done to the state’s schools through recent legislation.

Lehman, now the Chair of the Senate Committee on Education and Corrections, held a public hearing on Wednesday, August 29th, stacked with testimony from handpicked experts.

The goal was to highlight how Acts 10 and 32 destroyed the state’s education system. Act 10 is the legislation that reformed public employee labor law in Wisconsin, and Act 32 is the 2011-2013 state budget. Supporters of Act 10 said its goal was to provide local units of government and school districts budget flexibility to address the decrease in state aid made available in Act 32.

However, in attempting to discredit both pieces of legislation at the same time, Democrats and their experts spent the day painting themselves into corners.

UW-Madison professor James Shaw argued Act 32 disproportionally decreased funding to high poverty districts. However, he went on to say the most dire educational problem in Wisconsin is the achievement gap, and Act 10 could actually help address it.

“You can have an inner city school with high poverty children, and typically the least senior teachers went to those schools,” Shaw said. “Now with Act 10, the administration might have some more flexibility on how we assign teachers to different schools.”

Unfortunately, that can’t happen yet in Milwaukee, where a record-setting teachers’ contract extension will keep Act 10’s tools from being implemented. That contract, which local labor leaders have refused to reopen, has kept the district from realizing over a hundred of a million dollars in savings over its lifespan.

The committee also had to wrestle with their claims that the most recent state budget decimated public schools, as they aired familiar complaints about the state’s decades-old school funding system.

“It was a battered system before,” Senator Bob Jauch (D-Popla tried to explain. “It’s completely broken now as a result of this last budget.”

So with their first committee hearing since regaining the Senate Majority, Democrats had hoped to highlight what they believe to be the punitive nature of the last state budget and the recent changes in public employee bargaining power. Instead, they discovered Act 10 provides districts with managerial as well as budgetary flexibility previously unimaginable.

Their consensus, at the end of the hearing, however, was predictable. Their only answer to the age-old question of what ails public education in Wisconsin was simply: more spending.

You can watch the hearing, in its entirety, on Wisconsin Eye.