Scott Walker Expands All-Out War Against Teachers’ Unions To University of Wisconsin

Gov. Scott Walker and his allies are advancing one of the most radical assaults on public education in recent history, by bombarding Wisconsin’s highly regarded schools, from kindergarten through the state university system, with draconian spending cuts, anti-union and corporate-style governance and ending faculty tenure.

As was the case several years ago when Walker and a Republican-majority legislature took away collective bargaining rights for most state workers (public safety unions were exempted), the 2016 presidential candidate and his Republican crew are ignoring overwhelming public protest to impose their right-wing, anti-union, anti-academic freedom agenda.

Seventy-eight percent of Wisconsin residents oppose Walker’s $127 million in proposed K-12 cuts—the first part of Walker’s plan, which has been met by a wave of parent-led protests across the state. The reduced spending follows Walker and Wisconsin’s GOP cutting corporate taxes by an estimated $2.3 billion between 2011 and 2020, which eliminates funds for education and social services.

But the biggest attack is aimed at the University of Wisconsin. To start, Walker is proposing to slash $250 million from its annual budget, a move opposed by 70%of the public (he originally proposed $300 million in cuts). Its budget has been cut in five of the past six years. One result has been a lowering of student financial aid, which has increased UW student debt.

Walker, who was elected governor in 2010, doesn’t stop there. Assisted by his appointees to the UW’s Board of Regents, he is seeking authority to fire tenured faculty under the guise of meeting budget goals. This is widely seen as a thinly veiled attack on union-negotiated job security and academic freedom, which have long been targets of right-wingers, such as those leading Milwaukee’s influential and well-funded Bradley Foundation, who believe UW is too liberal.

Faculty outrage at the targeting of tenure has been volcanic. As Sara Goldrick-Rab, a UW-Madison educational policy professor said, “I can’t stay where I can’t speak. And believe me, I cannot speak without tenure.” A number of other prominent faculty have said they may have to leave the UW system.

The educators’ fury has prompted a petition campaign that has spread to at least 49 states and 26 nations, public protests, warnings of faculty seeking work at other universities, and worry that the reductions in staffing for classes will delay graduation for many students and force them to rack up more tuition-related debt. If included in the final version of the state budget, UW salaries would continue to lag behind other top-ranked state universities, further diluting the university’s talent pool.

Scott Walker’s Dismal Economics

Wisconsin is not the only red state that is grappling with education funding and governance issues after new Republican majorities cut a range of state taxes. Kansas under Gov. Sam Brownback went down this road and has been forced to raise the regressive sales tax because schools have been so badly hurt. Today, Wisconsin is one of a half-dozen states facing cuts to higher education funding for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Walker’s attacks on education are not occurring in an economic vacuum. They come as the state has fared poorly in recovering from 2008’s global fiscal crisis and ensuing recession. The number of middle-class jobs has dwindled by 14.7%since 2000, which is twice the average national loss of 7.2%. Wisconsin ranks 35th in job creation.

Almost all net job growth between 2010-’13 has been in low-wage jobs. Pay growth and GDP have been below the national average in this same period. And the state dropped to “dead last” in a key ranking of business start-up activity, according to the Wall Street Journal. If anything, Walker’s attacks on eductaion seem poised to undermine the state’s long-standing strategy of relying on a highly skilled and educated workforce to boost its economy.

Walker’s proposals are provoking intense reactions from every corner of the state education ecosystem. Starting with the public school system, state superintendent of schools Tony Evers said Walker’s actions were “eroding the foundations” of K-12 education. He pointed to the system’s track record of successes, while noting the need for continuing to improve education for impoverished children.

“Wisconsin is nationally renowned for its quality public schools,” Evers said. “We are a leader among the states in graduation rates, Advanced Placement participation, and ACT scores because of our highly trained educators and the support of families and local communities.”

Walker’s attacks are a dream come true for some of the most pro-corporate, right-wing ideologues in the country, namely the Bradley Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Their zeal to cut public spending, destroy labor rights and gut academic tenure is part of an agenda that also includes privatizing public education. This can be seen in Walker’s efforts to change the management structure in K-12 schools and at UW, as well as expanding the push for privatized K-12 charter schools—another taxpayer-funded, union-breaking gambit.

On the management front, Walker’s allies have been installing a new top-down, corporate decision-making structure that shrinks the power of teachers and school boards. This has already occurred in K-12 schools thanks to his 2011 effort that eliminated most public-employee rights to collective bargaining. A parallel strategy is unfolding at the university level, where Republicans are set on weakening faculty roles in governance, and undermining job security—tenure protections—that support the open advocacy of controversial ideas.

At the municipal level, a big piece of Walker’s agenda have been to expand privatized, non-union schools. In Milwaukee, his allies would cut the power of the democratically-elected School Board, thereby handing control over some “failing schools” to neo-liberal county executive Chris Abele, who would become responsible for overseeing new privatized “voucher” schools that would ban teacher’s union.

Legislators from the area’s wealthiest suburbs have pushed this aspect of the GOP’s reforms, school board vice-president Larry Miller said. “What’s so obvious is the colonial attitude: we, as wealthy white suburbanites from wealthiest districts, we can do anything we want.”

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