Education expected to be a 'major issue' in Walker recall electionEducation is shaping up to be a key, yet complicated, issue in the upcoming recall election of Gov. Scott Walker.
By: By Matthew DeFour, The Wisconsin State Journal, Superior Telegram
Education is shaping up to be a key, yet complicated, issue in the upcoming recall election of Gov. Scott Walker.
Democrats vying to oust the first-term Republican say his cuts to state education funding are a top issue in the campaign, and it's as important or even more so than the issue that sparked the recall effort -- the governor's rollback of public employee collective bargaining.
"It's the major issue in the campaign why we're recalling the governor," said Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, one of four Democrats in the May 8 primary. "It comes back to the issue of priorities."
But Walker is telling voters the cuts were necessary to balance the state budget, and that collective bargaining changes have allowed school districts to become more efficient.
In recent weeks he's taken the fight to the state's largest teachers union over how to interpret the impact of the cuts. In a recent campaign ad he highlighted that school property taxes declined 1 percent this year statewide.
"The governor is proud to run on his record," Walker campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said.
Funding for public education remains an important issue to voters, but the data isn't available to say definitively how budget cuts are affecting the quality of schools, said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School polling project.
Two-thirds of respondents to Marquette's January poll opposed reducing state aid to public schools, a higher percentage than those who opposed cutting Medicaid, limiting collective bargaining of public employees or requiring public employees to contribute more to pension and health insurance premiums.
Even self-described conservatives were split about 50/50 on cutting aid to schools, but that doesn't necessarily translate to a vote against Walker, Franklin said.
"This is a very vital area for the debate, but it's one where any objective evidence that could convince a skeptic one way or the other is very hard to come by," Franklin said. "So we tend to let our partisan filters convince us of either the benefits or the damages have been done."
Kim Henderson, president of Wisconsin PTA, said parents are confused by the rhetoric about education cuts compared with what they're seeing in their children's schools.
"They're not feeling the cuts as bad as sometimes the press and everyone tells them they're going to," Henderson said. "People aren't really sure what is the truth."
Funding cuts ranked highest
The organization leading the effort to oust Walker asked 155,000 petition signers in January about the importance of various issues in the recall. Of nearly 40,000 responses, education funding cuts ranked highest in importance, said Lynn Freeman, executive director of United Wisconsin to Recall Walker.
"If this was just about collective bargaining, we would have never gotten" more than 900,000 signatures, Freeman said. "Collective bargaining lit the fire and education and health care poured the gasoline on it."
Walker's first budget cut $792.2 million, or 7.1 percent, in state aid for K-12 schools over the biennium ending June 2013, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
However, school districts faced an even steeper $1.6 billion net reduction in funding because Walker's budget slashed the amount of money school districts could legally raise through property taxes.
Most districts were able to offset much of the lost revenue by having employees pay more for pension and health insurance premiums. Many switched health insurance plans.
Three out of four districts also reduced staff, according to data released last week by the Department of Public Instruction. More than 2,300 positions were cut statewide, but a disproportionate number came from three districts -- Milwaukee, Kenosha and Janesville -- where employee unions refused to accept pension and health insurance contributions. A record number of retirements also mitigated the number of layoffs.
Four Dems in race
Besides Vinehout, the other main Democratic contenders are Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and Secretary of State Doug La Follette. The primary winner faces Walker in the June 5 recall election.
Barrett said the historic education cuts weren't necessary to balance the budget, and the issue will emerge as a winning one for Democrats, especially as school districts prepare their 2012-13 budgets. He and Falk both said education spending is among the top two or three issues along with jobs and collective bargaining.
Among the Democrats, only Vinehout has a fully detailed alternative proposal for how she would have balanced the state's budget last year differently than Walker did.
Her proposal would have cut K-12 school aid, but by $364.2 million less than Walker's budget. She still would have required pension contributions from public employees, but would have eliminated certain tax breaks for businesses, some new administrative contracts and the expansion of charter and voucher schools. She would have kept revenue limits apace with the historic trend of 2 to 3 percent increases.
Barrett said because the Wisconsin Education Association Council agreed its members should contribute to pension and health insurance pensions, the savings from those "is a given." He and Falk both said they wouldn't have adopted business tax breaks adopted by the Legislature and signed by Walker that the fiscal bureau estimates will cost $217.7 million over the biennium. Falk said she would have used part of the additional revenue from rolling back tax breaks to restore $34 million in cuts to technical colleges.
Walker campaign spokeswoman Matthews said Falk and Barrett would "take Wisconsin back."
"They're offering no solutions in which they would close that budget deficit, leaving the only options as tax increases," she said.
La Follette said in a statement Friday he supports an additional 1 percent sales tax to pay for K-12 and higher education.
Walker to implement projects
If he survives the recall, Walker plans to implement many of the projects he began in his first two years, such as a state reading council and a new school accountability system, spokesman Cullen Werwie said.
"By focusing on fundamentals like reading, flexibilities for districts, and accountability for results, we have laid a solid foundation for future reforms," Werwie said. "Governor Walker is also going to remain focused on protecting property taxes as he did in the last budget."
(c)2012 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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