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.”

Privatized School

Transferring taxpayer resources from public schools to private voucher or charter schools will mean a loss of about $60 million for every five schools, Miller said. “I’m convinced that this piecemeal takeover is part of a larger plan to turn education into a cash cow for private operators,” said Wendell Harris, a fellow school board member who noted there’s big money to be made, whether the privatized schools succeed or fail.  

Meanwhile, the loss of funding for Milwaukee public schools has already drained the district’s programs, translating into larger classes and ending art, music, theater and physical education programs. All of this creates a negative feedback loop that allows the right-wingers to say charter schools are needed because public schools are failing.  

“Since vouchers began in Wisconsin [about two decades back], more than $1.8 billion in public dollars has been given to private voucher schools,” said Barbara Miner, author of Lessons from the Heartland, which traces the struggle for educational justice in Milwaukee. “This year alone, the three voucher programs in Wisconsin will receive $209 million in taxpayer funding,” she said, noting that Walker and the GOP have accelerated taxpayer subsidies for privatization.

Walker’s charter schools have a religious bent, which alarms education advocates. “Some 89% of voucher students in the Milwaukee program attend a religious school,” Miner said.

While voucher schools receive $209 million in taxpayer support, the state’s 424 public school districts also stand to lose $127 million in funding. This comes on top of previous state budgets that failed to keep pace with rising costs and prevented local school districts from raising taxes.

Meanwhile, as is the case nationally, charter schools aren't much better than public schools they seek to replace. The Milwaukee School Board’s Miller noted that seven out of the 10 worst performing schools were “voucher” schools. “Basically, there’s no accountability for voucher schools,” he said, noting that Republicans have failed to hold these schools to the same accountability standards used for public schools.

But lavish campaign donations have sustained support for vouchers among conservatives in the state legislature. Campaign finance records revealed that school privatization advocates for “voucher” schools “larded GOP committee members with over $122,000 in direct campaign donations,” the liberal group One Wisconsin Now reported.  

And in what may be the final insult of Walker’s education reforms, the state GOP also is proposing to eliminate most teacher-certification requirements, permitting the hiring of people without any training or any college degree.

The Right-Wing Takeover of UW

As brazen as Walker’s attack on K-12 public schools is, it's only a warm up for a vast right-wing transformation of the state university system. Walker’s intentions came into public view after researchers discovered an obscure passage in his 1,813-page budget for the 2015-17 fiscal year. His executive branch team had surreptitiously rewritten the UW’s mission statement, replacing UW’s commitment to “the search for truth” with “meeting the workforce needs of the state.”

The Madison-based progressive Center for Media and Democracy found and publicized the lowering of academic aspirations. When public outrage ensued, Walker blamed the change on a “drafting error.” But the state’s media didn’t buy that excuse, and he had to pull back on the change.

The episode did not even deter Walker from his crusade to re-make the UW system in a corporate mold. Walker promised “the equivalent of Act 10,” his infamous law revoking collective bargaining for most public employees. (Walker followed up that anti-labor initiative with the signing of a new Southern-style “right-to-work” law targeting private-sector unions and recently, support for elimination of the state’s “prevailing wage” law which safeguards construction-worker wages.)

The elimination of tenure in Wisconsin statutes—promoted in the name of management “flexibility” would be the biggest attack nationally on tenure. It explicitly weakens the voice of faculty and makes them “subordinate” to the chancellors who run each campus.

Walker’s plans would have enormous implications. There are two proposals at play here. First, funds for student loans would shrink as class offerings also would shrink. The combination could mean that students would have to borrow more money to attend UW and possibly take longer to graduate. One concrete fear is fewer middle-class and lower-class students could afford a state university education.

“The cutting of funds for student aid has huge repercussions for student loan debt,” notes Scott Ross of One Wisconsin Now. “We will see more kids denied a chance to enter the university. There are already 41,000 students who are eligible for state aid but are getting no help because of Walker’s policies. These cuts will make it worse.”

On the academic front, students will likely endure a degraded educational experience, as the university will shift to more teaching from poorly-paid “adjunct” faculty lacking any job security, as well as teaching assistants—who are graduate students also struggling with academic loads.

But the most brazen attack of all is the assault on academic freedom via the GOP effort to gut tenure protections. Tenure has long existed to insulate faculty teaching controversial ideas from political pressures that will result in layoffs or firings for dissident faculty. Faculty in the UW system, especially at Madison, long a hotbed of left-wing activism, have for decades infuriated conservatives for allegedly inciting student rebellions.

The state’s infamous 1950s U.S. senator, Republican Joseph McCarthy, who succeeded in destroying the careers of many progressives in academia and labor with his anti-Communist witch-hunt, once called UW a “nest of communist traitors.” Couched in less inflammatory rhetoric, sharp criticism of UW professors by GOP legislators and powerful voices on the right has persisted through the decades. For much of UW faculty, this underscores the importance of tenure and the protection of academic freedom.

The UW system would be the first major university system in the nation to face drastic weakening of tenure. Based on repealing the tenure protections in Wisconsin law, UW administrators would then be free to lay off faculty “deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.” The Board of Regents, with 12 of 18 members chosen by Walker, and university administrators have claimed tenure would be protected by policies to be laid out by the regents.

However, that contention is dubious. As former regent John Drew, a United Auto Workers leader who filled the traditional labor seat on the board until 2014, said, no Board of Regents policy would substitute for the protections enshrined in state statute. “I would predict that whatever the Walker controlled Board of Regents adopts as a policy will be far weaker than the current tenure and shared governance provisions in Chapter 36,” he said.

For his part, Walker has laid the groundwork to implement his agenda. His appointments to the Board of Regents have resulted in its most right-wing, pro-corporate tilt in university history. It now includes billionaire Diane Hendricks, who famously pressed Walker to push for a “right-to-work” law, and leaders close to Republican causes and the Bradley Foundation. The appointment of extreme conservatives like Michael M. Grebe, the son of Walker’s former campaign manager and Bradley Foundation President Michael W. Grebe, is another sign that the Regents will become more ideological and another conduit for ALEC-type initiatives, Drew said.

Walker’s telling statement that equates his new UW program with Act 10 makes clear his views on tenure and his vision for the university.  Polls show Wisconsin residents are resistant to these draconian reforms, but that hasn’t stopped Walker, who continues to promote his reputation as the aggressive, anti-union Republican seeking the presidency in 2016.


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