The provisions of the Budget Repair Bill have gone into effect. For school districts that (unlike Madison) did not extend their collective bargaining agreement with their teachers unions, it is a brand new day.
In those districts, collective bargaining agreements are essentially gone and the districts have much wider discretion over compensation and working conditions for their teachers and other staff.
The Kaukauna School District is one that has taken advantage of the Budget Repair Bill provisions. Like nearly all school districts, Kaukauna now requires its teachers and staff to pay the employees’ share of their retirement contributions, which amounts to 5.8% of their salary, and is also requiring a larger employee payment toward the cost of health insurance, up to 12.6% from 10%.
The district also took advantage of the expiration of its collective bargaining agreement to impose a number of other changes on its teachers. For example, it unilaterally extended the work day for high school teachers from 7.5 to 8 hours and increased the teaching load from five to six high school classes a day.
The president of the Kaukauna School Board issued a statement about how the new law helped the district balance its budget and make other beneficial changes in its operations.
This was enough for the Governor and his supporters to make the district the poster child for their claims that, despite all the protests, the new laws will actually help education in the state.
Governor Walker’s Facebook page features a link to a television news story about the district’s budgeting, under the heading “It’s Working: Kaukauna School District to Hire More Teachers and Reduce Class Sizes.”
A columnist in the Washington Examiner saw fit to write about the various savings that Kaukauna was able to realize and concludes that for Kaukauna, the changes brought about by the Budget Repair Bill have been “a godsend, not a disaster.”
Blogger Ann Althouse cited to a Journal-Sentinel blog post about Kaukauna’s budget decisions and snarked, “Let’s stop and think of all the protesters who carried signs asserting that their opposition to Scott Walker was for the children.”
The Kaukauna School Board made decisions that I assume make sense for their district. But I don’t see how their decisions vindicate much of anything, let alone the provisions of the Budget Repair Bill and Budget Bill.
First, it is important to step back for a little perspective on the situation faced by all school districts in the state. For more than fifteen years, school districts have been laboring under the spending limits imposed by the legislature.
Every year, school districts’ costs go up by more than they are permitted to increase their expenditures, and so school districts have been searching for savings and imposing cuts on their programs for years.
The spending limits put school districts in a vice, and this year the Governor tightened the screws. In the past, school spending has been permitted to rise by a modest amount, typically a couple of hundred dollars per year per student, though by not enough to cover rising costs.
This year for the first time schools have had to cut their levels of expenditures – instead of increasing spending by a couple of hundred dollars per student, the Governor’s budget requires cuts of 5.5%, which work out to about $550 or $600 per student.
The Governor has proclaimed that his legislation provided school districts with the “tools” to deal with their obligation to cut expenses. The tools amount to the opportunity to balance a school district’s budget by taking the needed dollars out of the take-home pay of the district’s teachers. These pay reductions come in the form of mandated employee contributions to their retirement plans and increased contributions to the cost of their health insurance.
School districts were provided other opportunities for disadvantaging their teachers as well. All school boards made use of these cost-saving options, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Kaukauna seems to fall on the extremely enthusiastic end of the spectrum.
So, the budget bill and the budget repair bill require school districts to make big cuts and essentially directed the districts to compel their teachers to bear the brunt of the cuts. Having no other options, school districts played their part in this plan. We did this in Madison, though with less zest than some districts. It is certainly the case that as a result it was easier for us to get to a balanced budget this year than in previous years.
Is this exercise something worth celebrating? Well, one point that hasn’t received much attention is that the changes to teachers’ compensation that the Budget Repair Bill mandates are essentially one-time fixes.
School districts will have to repeat their cost-slashing exercises next year and every subsequent year until the state’s school funding formula is overhauled. It is quite unlikely that we’ll be able balance our budgets on the backs of our teachers more than once. So this isn’t anything close to a permanent solution to school districts’ annual budgeting challenges.
There are longer-term issues as well. While the Governor has wanted to send the message around the country that Wisconsin is open for business, the message that he indisputably sent everywhere, around the globe as well as around the country, is that Wisconsin has it in for its teachers.
If you’re a teacher, or plan to be one, we’re telling you that we’re not going to be very welcoming in this state. We’ll cut your take-home pay, worsen your working conditions and, by gosh, we’ll make you like it.
It’s puzzling the extent to which folks seem to think that we can cut teachers’ pay and load them up with new responsibilities and yet not expect that there will be any effect on their job performance. The world doesn’t work that way. Teachers, like everyone, react to incentives.
You get what you pay for. As we cut teachers’ pay, make their working conditions less attractive, and demonstrate in other ways that we don’t value their contributions to the educational enterprise, then, all else equal, teachers with other options will leave our employment. The teachers who stay won’t be as willing to go above and beyond their minimum obligations. We’ll be unable to attract as high a caliber of applicant for teacher vacancies as we have in the past. The quality of the teaching profession in Wisconsin will eventually but inevitably go down. Our students will learn less as a result.
Long term, we’ll have two options. We can try to address this problem or we can ignore it.
If we try to address it, the remedy will likely be expensive. If the cuts this year were not a needed adjustment to bring the compensation of Wisconsin teachers more in line with what teachers make in other states – and no one has claimed that they were – then at some point we’re going to have to make it up to our teachers.
Eventually we’ll have to raise teacher compensation in the state in order to keep up with other states. Of course, if we are to fit a genuine increase in teacher pay within the frequently-suffocating overall spending limits the state imposes, we’ll have to find even more drastic cuts in programming.
If eventual catch-up pay raises for teachers is the likely response to the pay-cuts we’re imposing this year, then this year’s budget exercises amount to borrowing the funds to balance our budgets from our teachers and pushing off the eventual reckoning for however long it takes us to realize that underpaying our most important employees is a false economy.
The alternative approach is for us to ignore the fact that Wisconsin is carving out a reputation as a state good teachers will do their best to avoid. If we follow this course, we’ll have to reconcile ourselves as a state to being a relative backwater for the teaching profession, with the decrease in overall teacher quality and reduced student achievement that can be expected to go along with that.
Just as our free-market friends like to remind us that there’s no free lunch, there’s also no way to avoid the grievous impact on employee morale and the adverse employment market reaction that we prompt when we decide we’ll just figuratively beat up on our teachers until this year’s school district budgets are balanced. To me, that doesn’t seem like much to celebrate.