Four years ago, public schools in Tomah were broken.
That, in effect, is what Gov. Scott Walker is telling a national audience as he runs for president.
In an extraordinary column in the Des Moines Register, Walker wrote, “In 2011, we changed that broken system in Wisconsin.”
Walker led with the story of Megan Samson, a first-year Milwaukee teacher who won a teaching award only to receive a layoff notice. Never mind that school boards, due to the uncertainty of the state budget process, routinely send out layoff notices only to bring teachers back (which happened in Samson’s case) or that Samson herself has asked Walker to stop using her as a political prop.
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Even if Walker’s story about Samson were legitimate, using seniority rules to define schools as “broken” is dishonest and cynical on his part. By Walker’s own definition, law enforcement in Wisconsin is “broken” because Act 10, which effectively banned public-sector labor unions, exempts police and firefighters and keeps their rigid seniority systems firmly in place.
Seniority rules aside, Walker’s narrative of failed schools couldn’t be more wrong as applied to Tomah and western Wisconsin. For decades, public schools in our part of the state have been among the nation’s finest, and students could count on a safe, nurturing learning environment in schools that served as the center of rural communities.
The past four years, contrary to Walker’s assertions, haven’t been good to the Tomah Area School District. The district receives less money per pupil than it did in 2010, and the cuts far exceed what the district has saved from slashing teacher retirement and health benefits. The district has experienced a 70 percent turnover in staff since 2007, much of it triggered by teachers leaving the profession over what they perceive as the governor’s hostility toward public education. In 2014-15, seven Tomah teachers left the district in mid-year. Prior to Act 10, it was rare for even one Tomah teacher to quit.
Walker’s attacks on public education aren’t done. State aid is frozen for the first year of the biennial budget (he wanted a $150 cut before the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee intervened) and rises only $100 per pupil the following year. Funding won’t keep pace with inflation and will force districts in western Wisconsin to cut more programs and complicate efforts to attract and retain quality staff.
Perhaps Walker’s narrative is applicable to the state’s most troubled urban school districts, although evidence that privatized alternatives are working in Milwaukee and Racine is mixed at best. However, his narrative about schools in western Wisconsin is dangerously wrong. Walker isn’t fixing broken public schools; he’s breaking public schools that work.