WILL Blog | Flanders: A Response to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post

 In Education Reform, ER Commentary

Today, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post released an “analysis” that purports to show the harm that Governor Scott Walker has caused to public schools throughout his tenure as Governor.   The claims made by Strauss vary in their legitimacy, but some are so far afield from what serious research has found that they need to be soundly refuted.   Here, I cover three of her biggest whoppers.

Act 10 and School Funding

Strauss claims that Walker “slashed” education funding in the state.   In order to address this claim, it is important to remember where the state was in 2011.  Federal aid to Wisconsin and every other state from the stimulus package had staved off substantial cuts to spending in the aftermath of the Great Recession, but that funding came to an end at this time.  All states, not just Wisconsin, faced the need to address substantial budget shortfalls resulting from the removal of the federal Band-Aid.   In 2012, there was a one-year cut in education spending.  But in every year since then, education spending has been increased.  The figure below shows per student spending in Wisconsin over time.

Per Student Spending in Wisconsin, 2009-2018 (DPI)

This hardly looks like a “slashing” of spending on public schools to me.

School Choice and Cost to Taxpayers

Next, Strauss trots out the tired line that school vouchers cost public schools money.   In making this claim, she ignores two key facts: 1) public schools end up with more money per pupil in the short run, and 2) It is only because public schools refuse to adjust to changes in their enrollment that taxes are increased.

Because the amount of the voucher is more than $2,000 less than the amount of funding per student in public schools, coupled with the state utilizing a three-year rolling average for district enrollment, school districts are better off per student when kids leave for private school choice. Previous research by WILL has highlighted this “school choice bonus.”  It is hard to blame school choice for gutting public schools in the face of this reality.

But if we take Strauss at her word, it is still difficult to understand why public schools should somehow be exempt from the forces of the market.  It would be no different than Pick n Save demanding they be compensated for a former customer who chooses to shop at Aldi.  If a public school is not offering the collection of services that best fits the needs of a particular student, they ought not continue to receive revenue for that student.

The Negative Effect of Act 10 on Teacher Experience & Benefits

Strauss cites a report by the left-leaning Center for American Progress to make the claim that Act 10 has had a negative effect on teacher benefits and experience.   However, Strauss is making a mountain out of a mole hill when it comes to experience.  Our own research showed that teacher experience had declined by approximately .75 years in the aftermath of the legislation—less than one year on average.  While it is doubtless true that having a more experienced teacher can benefit students in the classroom, a difference of less than a year is unlikely to be substantively meaningful.

When it comes to changes to teacher benefits, it is perhaps indisputable that benefits are less exorbitant than they were prior to Act 10.   Teachers now must contribute to their healthcare and retirement, much like many other Americans.  But these changes to the structure of benefits have led to substantial savings for school districts, which has led to the implementation of programs that stand to benefit high quality teachers, such as the opportunity to move to better paying school districts.

While reasonable people could disagree about the impact of Governor Walker on education in the state, the claims of Strauss strain credibility.  The dramatic and hardly defensible claims turn this into less of an analysis than a hit piece in support of his opponents.

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