by Lawrence Tabak
On September 17, 2017, the Wisconsin Senate, voting along party lines, joined the Wisconsin House in passing the state budget for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, sending it to Governor Scott Walker for his signature. Buried within that budget was an odd legislative action which quickly garnered the attention of educators in the Racine School District.
The legislation focused on an unnamed school district, but one described so statistically it could only be Racine Unified School District (RUSD). The Racine district, the fifth largest in Wisconsin, encompases a diverse population in Racine County in the southeastern corner of the state, just minutes from the Illinois border. In addition to the 77,000-population city of Racine, the district encompasses six villages and towns, serving a total population base of 139,000. The city of Racine is home to the second largest African-American population in the state while the surrounding towns and villages are largely white. The economic division is also stark: the city of Racine has a poverty rate of 26.1 percent while some of the suburban areas sport a median income four times that of the downtown area. In November of 2017 a survey by 24/7 Wall Street rated Racine as the fourth-worst city for African Americans in the U.S. after Erie, Peoria, and Milwaukee.
“[This Wisconsin legislation] appears to be an intentional effort to segregate by race, affluence and need. I can see no other logic than an effort to escape from a well integrated school district that’s been doing a good job of meeting its students’ needs.”
The bill outlined how, if the district didn’t change its procedures or improve its test scores, it would be subject to dismantling. The wealthy white suburban areas would be free to start their own school districts, with no input from teachers, educational administrators, school board members, or more tellingly, the higher-needs population of Racine. This action encapsulated not only Wisconsin’s Republican-sponsored war on teacher unions and educators, but national Republican trends of disdain for public education and government employees in general, overlaid with the scarcely veiled racism seen in everything from immigration restrictions to Trump tweets.
Buried as it was in a dense budget, the legislation didn’t garner much immediate attention. But one person who took note was Julie Underwood, former Dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, a UW law professor and a nationally recognized authority on school law.
“I saw the RUSD legislation in light of what was happening around the United States,” she says. “Places that had worked on desegregation and integration issues were pulling back and moving backward. The result has been a number of communities whose school systems have been pulled apart.”
One such proposed suburban split, in Birmingham, Alabama, resulted in a federal court decision which was issued in April, 2017. Judge Madeline Haikala rejected the argument that “things have changed” since the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In her 190-page ruling, she began with this decision and carefully defended its relevance and subsequent court cases. She wrote: “The Supreme Court’s holding in Brown is simple and unaffected by the passage of time: when black public school students are treated as if they are inferior to white students, and that treatment is institutionalized by state or municipal action, the resulting stigma unconstitutionally assails the integrity of black students.” She warned that “history teaches that communities, left to their own devices, resegregate fairly quickly, in some cases sending the very messages of inferiority that the Supreme Court attempted to address in Brown.”
Underwood and her associates looked at census and school enrollment data and came to an unambiguous conclusion regarding Racine County. The splitting of the district would cut the racial minority population in the suburban break-off district in half, while increasing the remaining Racine school district’s minority population from a current district percent of 59 percent to 70 percent. The same sort of shift would be engendered when measured by economic, special needs, or English as a second language. “It would create an affluent school district with less needs,” says Underwood, “while at the same time putting financial strains on a district supporting a higher percentage of needs.”
In the Alabama case the judge attempted to balance the desire for local control against whatever racial imbalances the split would cause and in the end ruled to allow for a modified split. For Underwood, the Wisconsin legislation weighs heavily towards an effort to circumvent the precedent for equal access initiated by Brown. “I’ve thought about the motivation and it appears to me to be an intentional effort to segregate by race, affluence and need,” she says. “I can see no other logic than an effort to escape from a well integrated school district that’s been doing a good job of meeting its students’ needs.”
The Legislative Backdrop
The 2017 RUSD-focused legislation can be understood only through the lens of previous Walker administrative actions. The Republican assault on Wisconsin public education had its D-Day in 2010, early in Scott Walker’s first term as governor, when Walker proposed radical legislation known as Act 10. Although he had campaigned under the ruse of a traditional Wisconsin Republican moderate, such as Wisconsin’s previous Republican governor, Tommy Thompson, once in office he unveiled his true nature. Act 10 was carefully designed to cripple Wisconsin’s powerful public unions, traditionally a key sponsor of Democratic candidates.
As Walker cynically explained at the time in an inadvertently recorded private comment to one of his largest donors, it was the first step of his “divide and conquer” strategy to destroy union power in the state. In this initial step, he ginned up general discontent by portraying state employees as over-paid, under-working bureaucrats who had cushy jobs, lifetime job security and the kind of union-negotiated benefits and pensions that the average Wisconsin worker could only dream of. And who was funding these softies according to Walker? Hard-hit blue-collar and unskilled workers and wealthy suburban professionals — Walker’s core supporters.
As Walker cynically explained at the time in an inadvertently recorded private comment to one of his largest donors, Act 10 was the first step of his “divide and conquer” strategy to destroy union power in the state.
Walker had no problem including public school teachers as part of his attack on the entitled, despite the fact that teaching has never been a particularly lucrative career, especially when compared with equally qualified and educated private sector employees. By focusing on job security and teacher benefits rather than pay, Walker certainly hit a tender nerve with the working class of Wisconsin. It was an easy win comparing their livelihoods with public employees, ignoring the fact that there was a significant education gap between the 91 percent of Wisconsinites with high school educations and the 28 percent with at least an undergraduate degree. After all, manufacturing jobs, typically union, had once provided similar income and security to high school graduates.
Even the wealthy Republican suburbanites could find a place in their hearts to envy public job security and pensions. Their employment prospects in the private sector were likely less than guaranteed and they had long been estranged from traditional pensions for the nerve-racking self-responsibility of stowing away enough 401-k money to support their affluent lifestyle through retirement.
With Republican control of both state houses, Act 10 passed on party-line voting and became effective on June 29, 2011. Like directions on how to strip down an automobile engine, the act was a manual on how to take apart unions. It prohibited public unions (other than police and fire) from further negotiations on pensions and benefits or working conditions, limiting them to salary talks. But then it capped salary increases at the cost of living, basically making real across-the-board pay raises moot.
Public unions were required to conduct annual certification votes in order to remain in existence. And union membership and dues would be entirely optional and require annual renewal and direct payment rather than salary deductions. To rub salt into the union wound, in contrast to normal democratic protocols, the existential certification vote required not a majority of votes, but a majority of eligible voters. These provisions not only made union existence and funding precarious, but insured that union leadership be forced to spend a considerable percentage of their energies working just to stay in existence. Act 10 also repealed the 2009 agreement which gave 30,000 University of Wisconsin employees the right to collectively bargain.
It seemed clear to many observers that these union death-by-papercut provisions were far too nuanced and cleverly sinister to have arisen indigenously in Wisconsin during the harried period of the Walker election and first-term budgetary process. While no one has yet stepped up with pride of authorship (in accordance with Wisconsin law regarding budgetary riders, no sponsors need be named), several researchers have traced elements of the legislation to conservative think tanks funded by, among others, the Koch brothers, in conjunction with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is a corporate-sponsored bill mill which introduces up to 1,000 pieces of state legislation a year across the country, typically sponsored by deeply conservative Republican legislators, who can be members of ALEC. Walker in his days as a member of the Wisconsin House (1993-2002) was an ALEC member and a serial introducer of ALEC legislation for tort reform, union busting, and tougher prison sentencing (while also sponsoring privatization of Wisconsin prisons). A University of Wisconsin professor who dared to blog about the bill’s roots found himself the subject of a Wisconsin GOP Freedom of Information request for all of his emails, widely seen as an attempt at intimidation to suppress his and anyone else’s criticism.
Part and parcel with the union busting was the big bonus for the Republican administration: a huge state budget cut to education. They had broken open the education piggy bank and uncovered a surprising windfall: $1.2 billion, including slashing $792 million from K-12 schools, with another $250 million sliced from the University of Wisconsin. Since 48 percent of Wisconsin spending on K-12 education came from the state level, this was an immediate shock to every school district in the state. The 2011 law also capped the amount of money school districts could raise from property tax, which cut school spending statewide by another $800 million. The total hit to K-12 school spending would require on average a 16-percent district-by-district rollback of expenses.
This “windfall” hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, the Republican-led state government in neighboring Iowa decided the best way to balance its budget was via deep cuts to public education. During the eight-year governorship of Republican Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s state allocations for its public universities dropped from 60 percent of their operating budgets to close to 25 percent. Seven states were spending at least 15 percent less on K-12 education in 2015 in inflation-adjusted dollars than in 2008: Arizona, Florida, Alabama, Idaho, Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma. All seven have Republican governors and Republican majorities in both houses.
The Results of Act 10
So with one hand Walker gave school districts unprecedented power over teacher compensation, and with the other made a major cut to their budgets. It was inevitable that teachers took a hit. Forget system-wide raises — even if money were available the new law prohibited increases larger than the modest inflation index. Take-home pay dropped as teachers were assessed new fees for healthcare (even as quality of plans and coverage was often slashed) and coughed up a percentage of salary to underwrite their future pensions. Administrators also had a free hand to change quality of work through such measures as cutting preparatory time or increasing teaching loads.
What did this mean to individual teachers? Jill Jensen, an elementary school teacher in Kenosha, just down the road from Racine, details the damages. “We saw take-home pay drop immediately. Since ACT 10 we’ve had years where we got no cost-of-living raises, sometimes just a fraction.” Even the low inflation of the past seven years has had an impact: $100 in 2010 is now worth just $88 in 2018 buying power. For teachers who have been serving in the same school roles, as Jensen has, the effect is demoralizing. Jensen sighs and says, “My take home pay today is still less than it was in 2010.”
An elementary school teacher from Kenosha: “My take home pay today is still less than it was in 2010.”
Teacher retirement almost doubled in the wake of Act 10 as the most experienced teachers fled, demoralized and worried about cuts to their pensions. Teacher shortages, especially in specialized areas such as science, math and special education, have become a real problem, especially in rural districts. With stagnant salaries and the modification by many districts of the traditional career ladders achieved via experience and additional education, teachers are finding it necessary to peddle their services to new school systems in search of pay increases, producing a previously unseen cross-district churn. Some districts have begun to rely on signing bonuses to poach talent while instituting cash penalties for resignations, creating an unproductive wave of spending as school systems bid against each other for specialty or especially esteemed teachers (including absorbing the resignation penalties). Enrollment in the state’s university education programs have dropped by as much as two thirds as the prospects and allure of the profession have suffered.
Walker and his minions have come up with some new regulations they feel will help. They recently instituted lifetime certification for teachers, eliminating the “red tape” of continuing education and whatever costs districts absorbed to keep their teachers up-to-date. It will also free up teachers from taking courses in the summer so they can get jobs painting houses or doing construction to try to make ends meet. Another recent development was the approval of a commercial online teacher certification program, where anyone with an undergraduate degree can ink up in a self-directed program which the motivated can finish in six or seven months. The cost: Just $1,900, although the company ran a 2017 Black Friday special for just $1,700.
Racine teacher union president Angelina Cruz summarized the online certification program as adding insult to injury. “Putting teachers in classrooms who have never faced a student before? I would hope no district in Wisconsin will ever allow such a travesty.”
The main problem with Act 10, from Walker’s perspective, was how some school districts didn’t seem to get into the spirit. In many areas teachers continued to support their union, both by certification and via dues. And some school districts still sought to work with teachers and other employees on issues of benefits and working conditions, despite the prohibition against formal negotiations on these matters.
In Racine Unified the mechanism was a Board of Adjustment committee composed of teachers and administrators to make recommendations regarding total compensation and working conditions to the school board (topics of negotiation which Act 10 had attempted to outlaw). In the years since Act 10 the Racine school board found these recommendations to be sensible and passed them into action via an Employee Handbook which specified the arrangements, using much of the same language which had been previously contained in the pre-Act 10 teacher contract. All of this teacher involvement really rankled Walker and his supporters who had passed Act 10.
The first effort to punish Racine occurred in 2016 when the state legislature decided to shake up what they saw was an overly complacent Racine Unified school board. A Republican member of the State Senate and a colleague in the House, both representing suburban Racine-area districts, introduced and passed legislation to change the Racine school board elections from nine at-large members into nine district elections, with candidates required to live in their districts. This state-mandated shift was intended to elect new members to the school board, and was successful, since residency forced six of the members to run against other incumbents, insuring that three incumbents would lose.
A slate of conservative anti-union candidates was developed and their campaigns were supported by what appeared to be dark-money campaign contributions. To counter these efforts the Racine teachers, led by their union, initiated an intensive grassroots campaign, including heavy door-to-door visitations and succeeded in maintaining a pro-teacher majority on the board.
This seemed to only incite the Walker administration. They came back with the unusual provisions slipped into the 2017 budget bill. Racine, like many school districts with a diverse population and a large number of low-income families, had trouble meeting the benchmarks for standardized testing. Despite the growing evidence that these testing benchmarks had little link to the quality of teaching, were heavily subject to early childhood environment and preparedness, emphasized raw testing results over year-by-year improvement, and have been demonstrated to respond to “teaching to the test” using high-priced curricula material supplied by the testing companies, the state pointed to Racine’s results and invoked the dreaded “failing school” imprecation.
The state law proposed a “fix”: the dismantling of the school district. Triggered by failing averages on standardized tests, the suburban communities around Racine would be given the option of breaking away from Racine Unified to form their own, smaller school district. They would take with them their tax base — and due to the income disparity in Racine County, likely a good portion of the current system’s income.
In addition there was another odd provision. The Unified District could delay such action by disbanding the Board of Adjustment and eliminating the formal involvement of teachers in the determination (via recommendations) of their pension, other benefits and working conditions. Under this pressure Racine’s Board of Adjustment was dissolved in the fall of 2017, leaving teacher input to informal channels and the discretion of the superintendent.
The prospect of dividing the district had a chilling effect on the region’s educators and cast a pale over a school district which had been working hard, with measured success, to serve its entire population. It also countered the general trend of school district consolidation, with its potential economies of scales. The impetus for the split had been brewing for some time, sparked by activist parents in the suburban areas who argued for more control over their children’s education. In 2015 a nonbinding resolution to split the district had been placed on the ballot in one of the two largest suburban communities, Caledonia. It produced a narrow 51-percent to 49-percent preference for splitting, a vote which was celebrated as a victory by the separationists rather than a sign of mixed sentiment. Of course, the parents in the city of Racine would have no vote at all.
Another possible motivating force was political vindictiveness, an impulse which we’ve seen as an operating principle from the current Republican presidential administration. In addition to the district’s recalcitrance in getting on board with Act 10 and the Democratic leanings of the City of Racine, there was Wis. Rep. Cory Mason. He’d been representing a solidly Democratic state district that includes parts of Racine County and nearby Kenosha since 2006 and had been something of a thorn in the side of the Walker administration. In 2012 he described Walker’s cuts to education spending as feeling “like we’re announcing a going-out-of-business sale.” In 2015 he criticized a Walker-sponsored anti-union bill as sacrificing Wisconsin workers to “the altar of Scott Walker’s presidential ambitions.” In January of 2018, Mason, stating his frustration over state politics, stepped down from his state legislative position to take over as Mayor of Racine, a position he had won in an October election.
Republicans from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to Walker down to Tea Party school board members point to vouchers and school choice as the antidote for what they cite as failing public schools, even as they slowly pull the rug out from these very schools.
In March of 2016, long before the legislation opening the window to split the school system, Cory’s father, Cory Mason III, wrote an impassioned editorial on public education for the Racine paper, “on behalf of the Mason family.” He championed the school system where his three accomplished children had been educated, and where his daughter, Mayor Mason’s sister, teaches third grade. He wrote: “Public schools have as their specific purpose to create a society without divisions of religion, ethnicity, or social class — people equipped with what is needed to pursue a livelihood, liberty, and happiness without apprehension or condescension toward people who are different from themselves.”
In the end, the educational bill tacked onto the 2017 budget exemplified some of the worst impulses demonstrated by Republican officials across the country: an antipathy towards public education (and anything else run by government), a scarcely cloaked racial bias and a willingness to use public policy for political ends, including punishing political opponents.
But then something happened that the Republican sponsors of a district breakup were unprepared for. Racine student test scores improved, pulling the district out of the timeline for its potential splintering.
But this was a temporary pardon. As long as the provision remains in force, it remains a sword of Damocles hanging over the Racine Unified System. The reprieve from the latest round of testing is just three years and the cycle of mandated change can be initiated by two consecutive years of poor test results. This crushing dependence on tests will be a burden on teachers and administrators as long as the bill remains in effect. A change will probably require a return of a Democratic majority in the statehouse, a prospect which is exceedingly daunting since the 2011 Republican-controlled gerrymandering of the state, which has been cited as the most egregious in U.S. history. Using improved computer-based modeling, Republicans engineered districting that virtually guarantees a stranglehold on state government. Case in point: Despite outpolling Republican state Assembly candidates by a million votes in 2012, Democrats landed only 39 of the 99 Assembly seats. The districting is currently under review by the Supreme Court — where the Garland/Gorsuch switch could end up being decisive.
And lest we forget, remember the central irony of the RUSD legislation is the Tea Party’s main tenets of smaller government and their distaste for government intervention in local affairs. In fact, one of Walker’s chief arguments for Act 10 was the freedom and flexibility it gave individual school districts, a freedom the legislation takes away from the professional educators of RUSD and the families of Racine.
Why All the Hate for Public Education?
It is difficult to measure the impact that Act 10 and subsequent budget cuts have had on the quality of education in Wisconsin. What is clear is that K-12 education is today a much less attractive profession than it was in 2010. Teacher morale has clearly suffered and this has to bleed into classroom performance.
One of the most respected and beloved teachers over the past few decades at Madison’s Memorial High School was Dan Raabe, who taught AP economics. He left three years ago. “I left teaching, which I loved, for three reasons. The first was the anti-teacher sentiment drummed up in the wake of Act 10 which went so far as having talk show hosts calling protesting teachers ’terrorists.’ The second was the way Act 10 cut into the teaching profession itself. I saw a lot more top-down classroom requirements, a lot of prescriptions which didn’t fit AP economics. Of course the cuts to benefits hurt. One of the main justifications for going into teaching was the foregoing of immediate compensation for the prospect of solid benefits and a decent pension.”
Raabe, a longtime Ultimate Frisbee coach and promoter, took a job he’d seen open a number of times during his teaching career, but had never previously considered. He’s now in Colorado Springs working as Manager of Youth and Education for USA Ultimate.
It is hard to imagine that the decrease in university teacher education program enrollment, alternative expedited certification and the decreased emphasis on professional improvement and continuing education can bode well for the future. Republicans from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to Walker down to Tea Party school board members point to vouchers and school choice as the antidote for what they cite as failing public schools, even as they slowly pull the rug out from these very schools.
Perhaps conservative Republicans grasp the essential liberalization of mind that takes place when a society has access to quality education. Perhaps Republican antagonists to public schools envision a balkanized patchwork of private schools, where wealthy parents use their vouchers as down payments on preparatory academies while religious parents opt for church-supported Bible schools where their children can memorize verses and study creationism. As for the future for lower-income families who depend on neighborhood schools (or publicly sponsored busing)? With only their vouchers in hand (currently in Wisconsin worth about 60 percent of the average public school cost-per-pupil) they may see large-class, low-quality economy schools, perhaps analogous to the segregated “separate but equal” schools of the days of official segregation.
Or perhaps, even more frightening, is the prospect that the Wisconsin and national movement to undermine public education, sponsored by some of the richest of Americans and their teammates in the industrial-education complex, has no vision at all. Instead it may be blindly driven by the same crude and ultimately anti-democratic forces that emanate from the Trump administration: the desire to consolidate power, to enrich themselves and their cohorts, to reward supporters and punish opponents.
Banner photo: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaking at CPAC. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
Lawrence Tabak is a writer based in Madison, Wis. His work has appeared in Fast Company, Forbes, and The Atlantic Monthly. He previously wrote about Foxconn in Wisconsin for Belt. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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