Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

WEAC’s “Evolving” Standards

The mood was sour at the WEAC offices in August of 2001. Republican Governor Scott McCallum had signed a budget that only increased school funding by $472 million over the biennium. These new funds, approved by McCallum while the Governor was wrestling with a budget deficit, represented increases of 3.1% and 4.2% in school aids over the 2001-03 biennium.

In a press release following the bill signing, the teachers’ union sneered at McCallum’s paltry effort, calling it a “status quo” budget. At no point in the release did they mention the half a billion in new funds they received – instead, they excoriated McCallum for vetoing a .78% increase in the property tax caps and for vetoing relaxation of the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) law, which caps teacher salaries. They derided the Republican governor for not increasing aid enough for special education, saying the “lack” of special education funds meant “school districts will be forced to pit special education against other programs, resulting in decisions that hurt all students.” To the extent they mention the increased aids at all, they dismiss them as merely “part of a continuing effort” to hold down property taxes.

Nearly eight years later, Democratic Governor Jim Doyle stood at the podium in front of the Legislature, which was now controlled fully by members of his own party. Faced with a budget deficit of $5.9 billion (much of it his own doing) Doyle announced his intention to increase school aids by $426 million over the biennium.  Even public school children in Wisconsin will recognize this as $46 million less than the increase authorized by McCallum in 2001.

Doyle’s budget also included a funding shell game that imperiled school aids in the future. Doyle cut over $500 million in general funds out of school aids and plugged in an equal amount in federal “stimulus” funds to cover the aids – federal funds which may very well not be available in the next budget. On top of that, he funds virtually the entire school aid increase with one-time federal money.  When 2011 rolls around, school aids could be over $1 billion in the hole and fighting tooth and nail with other state programs for funding.

Undoubtedly, the small funding increase, coupled with the risky way funds are shifted around to patch up holes, would cause the thoughtful folks at WEAC to have some serious concerns regarding Doyle’s budget.

Surprise!  The day after his budget address, WEAC wasted no time in praising the proposed Doyle school funding plan, gushing that it “stays true to Wisconsin’s priorities and values.”

WEAC’s President Mary Bell’s reaction to the budget was grounds for Doyle to file a restraining order against her.  “The governor’s budget proposal recognizes that we must all make sacrifices in light of Wisconsin’s challenging economic conditions, but that there is no greater promise than the one we make to educate our children for the future. Investing in them reaps dividends for generations to come,” said  Bell, presumably reaching for a cold towel.

In the real world, such a naked double standard might cause one some embarrassment. But this is politics, where elected officials can steal from taxpayers and drive the state into crippling debt with impunity. Interest groups know that as long as they back the right horse, they only have to be as consistent as their most recent press release.  And WEAC has taken full advantage of the lack of institutional memory in the Capitol building.

Take, for example, some of Jim Doyle’s past budgets with regard to school finance. In 2003, facing a budget deficit (you may be sensing a theme here), Doyle proposed eliminating the two-thirds school funding requirement and granting an increase of $26 million in general funds (.01% and .5%) between 2003 and 2005. As expected, WEAC gave Doyle a pass, calling the budget situation “worse than grim,” conceding there would be “pain on the way to recovery.”

Republicans, who had gained control of both houses the previous fall, believed that with such a paltry state aid increase, school districts would simply pass the cost on to taxpayers. So the GOP shrewdly increased school funding by $88 million over what Doyle had proposed, along with a commensurate cap on local property taxes that could be loosened via referendum.

At this point, the teachers’ union lost its mind. WEAC President Stan Johnson, the clown prince of hyperbole, declared the Republican version of the budget would “return Wisconsin to the Ice Age” – as if children would be forced to ride mastodons to school. When Democrats propose increased spending, it’s because “every kid deserves a great school.” When Republicans increase spending, you’ll have a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing you to the mall.

Of course, WEAC contended that the tightened property tax caps wouldn’t give them as much money as they wanted – so they called it a “cut,” despite the fact that funding would have gone up by $120 and $100 per pupil in 2003 and 2004, respectively. In government, not getting as much as you want is considered a cut… unless Jim Doyle does it.

Consider Doyle’s new budget – the one that proposes the dangerously out of balance $426 million aid increase. In their departmental request, the Department of Public Instruction made the pitch for a $566 million increase. Doyle’s budget came up $140 million short. Had Scott McCallum done so, WEAC would be acting like he just ripped the lunch box out of the hand of every little curly-haired schoolgirl in Wisconsin.  When Doyle does it, it’s one of our “priorities and values.”

Naturally, nothing is going to keep this rhetorical double standard from cropping up every two years. In the last budget, when Republicans proposed tightening revenue caps to allow an increase of $100 per pupil, Democratic Senator Bob Jauch said he had “a hard time understanding the Republican compulsion to take a meat axe to the children of this state.” Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair Russ Decker said the proposal was like “putting a gun to the head of public education and to students.”

Below is a chart of total proposed per-pupil spending in 2007-08 under the Doyle plan and under the Republican Joint Finance motion:

It’s good to see Senators take a rhetorical cue from WEAC. As long as they’re on the teachers’ union payroll, it makes perfect sense that they’d be reading from the same employee manual.

2 Comments

  1. Well, with a little graphical imagination, you can make it look much more like a meat axe, say if instead of starting the graph at zero, start the y-axis at 9500 or thereabouts.

  2. An interesting note about the rhetoric on all sides of the issue is that money is not spent on a “per pupil” basis. Per-pupil spending calculations have a valid use in thoughtful, yet abstract, analysis of expenditure, but the numbers are misleading when used for political hyperbole. Statewide per-pupil spending is likewise an abstraction.

    Children come to school for free. Money is largely spent for employees in the personnel-centered public enterprise we call education. There are no “high-cost” children or “low-cost” children. They all come through the schoolhouse doors for free. The public services the public provides and the facilities used for education cost money.

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