Talk to most anyone from Wisconsin and they will likely have very strong opinions about the state’s Republican governor, Scott Walker. This polarization is largely due to his signature Act 10 legislation, enacted during his first few months in office. Walker’s conservative approach represented a major shock to the public system’s infrastructure– including the school system–that was built on unionized labor.
Facing a $137 million budget deficit his inaugural year, Walker proposed Act 10 as a means of scaling back the state government’s spending. The fiscal portion of the legislation involved removing collective bargaining rights from most local and state officials and requiring them to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance. The act also forced unions to be “recertified” every year by a majority vote. Walker estimated that this would cut $30 million in spending during the first year, with potential long-term savings around $300 million.
In response to Walker’s proposal, thousands of angry union workers filled the state capitol building, spilling into the streets and demanding that their legislature “kill the bill.” Critics claimed that the public school system would face major issues as teacher/student ratios and teachers’ salaries would drop.
Nonetheless, Walker’s Act 10 proposal passed. Five years later, a new study from The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty provides evidence that justifies Governor Walker’s actions.
WILL’s study, released on June 21, compares data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Department of Education to see how the Act 10 legislation affected the state education system in areas such as the number of students per teacher, district expenditures on teacher compensation, and teacher demographics. To do this, Wisconsin was compared to bordering states such as Minnesota and Michigan to account for regional trends.
The study shows that Act 10 has not resulted in a decline in educational resources.
For example, one major charge against Walker’s bill was that teachers would leave the workforce in droves. WILL’s study shows that, in reality, over a period of eight years the number of teachers declined at a slower rate after the passage of Act 10, changing from a 1.4 percent decline during the four years preceding the legislation to a 1.2 percent decline for the following four years. Additionally, licensed teachers declined by 2.2 percent in the period prior to Act 10’s passage and only 0.1 percent in the period after. It is obvious that Walker’s bill did not cause more teachers to leave the workforce.
Act 10 also barely changed teacher racial demographics. While there was a small 0.3 percent increase in the number of Hispanic teachers and a 0.3 percent decline in white teachers, only the former is statistically significant.
Compared to neighboring states, Wisconsin has not changed significantly in terms of the student-teacher ratio. In light of teacher declines, this is explained by the decline in teachers roughly “tracking with” the decline in enrollment. The number of students relative to administrative support staff declined by approximately 120 students. This means that for every administrative support staff member such as a secretary, the number of students per staff member declined by 120. Also decreasing was the number of students for each district administrator relative to neighboring states, which is “suggestive that growth in district administrators outpaced the growth in student population.”
Furthermore, while average salary and benefits were both lower within the state by at least a few thousand dollars, this was to be expected. Act 10’s limitations on taxpayer-subsidized health insurance and pensions allowed districts to look for other plans rather than keeping the same high-cost system that existed. The study notes that “Wisconsin still ranks in the top half of states in teacher pay.”
The report shows that district spending on base salaries for teachers declined relative to surrounding states. However, this does not account for changes in the way districts have chosen to pay teachers (merit-based pay and bonuses do not factor into these numbers). When looking at gross salaries, WILL finds no evidence indicating an overall state change in spending on Wisconsin teachers due to Act 10.
While it was clear to all that Walker’s 2011 cutbacks would save Wisconsin a large amount of money (the MacIver institute has estimated $5.24 billion over five years), critics of Act 10 were adamant that the bill would adversely affect the labor market for teachers. WILL’s study shows that these claims were wrong. Teachers have not deserted their profession, changes in teacher experience and race have been miniscule, and gross teachers’ salaries relative to surrounding states were essentially unaffected by Act 10.
Over five years, Governor Walker’s legislation has cut Wisconsin’s budget deficit without adversely affecting teachers. Perhaps the next time Walker or another governor suggests union reforms, critics should avoid pushing scare tactics.
Conner Dwinell is an E21 contributor.
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