Does cutting the power of teacher unions, cutting teacher salaries and reducing tenure and seniority rights— all ingredients in the conservative recipe for educational success—make for better education? Let's take a look at Wisconsin, one of the country's experiments in conservative governance.
In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a bill that reduced the bargaining rights of K-12 teachers as well as other government employees. It also prohibited payroll deductions for union dues. Teachers and other state employees could still bargain over their pay, but they couldn't bargain over other benefits, hours or conditions of employment. The amount the state contributed to health care and retirement plans decreased.
That same year, Wisconsin's K-12 spending was cut by seven percent. The idea was, teachers would absorb the cuts with their lowered compensation, so the children would get the same education at a lower cost, while lack of seniority, tenure and other teacher protections would allow the state to get rid of underperforming teachers.
How has it all worked out? In 2016, teacher compensation was down 12.6 percent. The decrease is mostly in the form of lowered benefits, but a salary cut is a salary cut. If teachers have to spend more of their pay on health care and retirement, that means their take-home pay takes a significant hit. The number of teachers moving from district to district increased, with more experienced teachers moving from lower income to higher income districts which could pay more. Rural districts were especially hard hit by the teacher drain, which led to an increase in the number of low-experience teachers.
In terms of test scores, in high income districts which made up for the loss of state funds with local revenues, student scores either remained stable or increased. Scores in lower income districts decreased.
It looks a whole lot like the Wisconsin legislature cut teachers' rights and school funding at the expense of teachers in low income areas and the children they serve. Teachers in higher income areas were held harmless if the community replaced the funds cut by the state, and their children performed at least as well as they did before. In fact, high income areas probably benefited because they were able to lure some the best teachers from other districts with more attractive salary packages.
Cut state funding, hurt lower income areas and help upper income areas. No doubt, Walker and his fellow fiscal conservatives must be patting themselves on the back for a job well done.
Note: My information comes from a study by the Center for American Progress
, a progressive think tank. All studies should be looked at with a healthy dose of skepticism, and that holds true for this one as well. By its own admission, the study is at its best in its discussions of the 2011 law and its effects on teachers. The analysis of the effects on student achievement are based on information pulled together from a number of academic studies whose results generally agree but have to be considered tentative because they have not yet been peer reviewed.