Maybe Governor Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Wisconsin state legislature figured they could starve the education beast into their particular idea of efficiency. Or perhaps they simply didn’t care too much for the idea of public education in the first place. One really never knows with the GOP when it comes to educating. It really depends on how one looks at the matter. But there is no denying that Wisconsin has made it incredibly difficult for educators to do their jobs.
Several weeks ago the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report which ranked Wisconsin among the top four states to have cut the most education dollars per student (see graph below). Again, Wisconsin citizens get what they vote for—or at least a little over half did. Perhaps they should have thought a bit more deeply about electing Walker and giving the GOP a legislative majority in 2010, and again during the recall election.
How is education funding austerity effecting Wisconsin’s schools? With smaller budgets, there are less teachers, larger classes sizes and cut programs, though not across the board. Some school districts have managed to keep their teachers and keep class sizes small, such as Waukesha School District.
At the Elmbrook School District, however, parents are rather pissed off at the rising class sizes at the elementary school level. A nearby school, Hillside, was closed this past year, and those students have migrated to various other nearby schools. Also, budget cuts are forcing Elmbrook School District to shrink staff and add students to classes as budget-saving measures.
Having grown up in Wisconsin, I will give it to you straight from the horse’s mouth: Elmbrook School District is in Brookfield, which lies within the most conservative, GOP-friendly county in the state. It’s also worth mentioning that Waukesha county is the richest (and one of the whitest) counties in Wisconsin.
Waukesha Country was solidly behind Scott Walker in both the 2010 gubernatorial election as well as the recall election earlier this year. So we can apply the old adage to Elmbrook’s class size problem: You get what you pay for; or, rather, what you vote for. Indeed, those families with children in public schools, who voted for Scott Walker and supported the GOP legislature, got what they paid for.
Walker’s Crusade wasn’t just about fighting public unions, such as teacher unions, but about implementing across the board spending austerity and tax cuts, especially on education. Simple math should have told Elmbrook’s residents that when the GOP-controlled Wisconsin government cut education spending and taxes, there just wasn’t going to be the necessary revenue for better class sizes. Elmbrook families may live in a wealthy neighborhood, but their wealth is not going to necessarily get their children a better education now.
As a Wisconsin educator in a nearby school district told me (we’ll keep him anonymous so parents don’t ask for his head on a spike): “We have almost 10 percent fewer offerings at our school. No auto shop at all, less art. The school board is also looking into cutting English electives for next year.”
“Our Spanish class size is over 40,” adds the teacher. The national average class size is about 24 students, so the insanity there is manifest. As a point of comparison, I took three years of Spanish in high school, and none of those classes were ever over 20 students. And at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, I took Latin and French, and neither class was over 20 students either.
Another Wisconsin teacher, who teaches 1st graders, stated, “Decreases in funding are leading to decreases in the number of teachers and therefore increased class sizes. However, I believe effective teaching is far more important than the class size.” This is a salient point. Teachers are being asked to do more with less, but even the best teachers are still trying to concentrate on the primary task of teaching their students well, and not griping about it.
Perhaps Wisconsin’s teachers can rise to the occasion, reassuring parents of their work, and more importantly inspiring and educating the kids as Wisconsin and other states plow through the Great Recession.
[Image: Darren Hauck/Reuters]