Robin Vos Punches Wisconsin Students and Teachers in the Face. Asks, how they got a Black Eye?

With the recently announced news of Wisconsin student test results dropping, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, wasted no time in pointing the finger at schools as being the cause of the decline in our students’ academic performance.

Vos and the GOP delivered what amounted to a punch in the face (much worse, actually) to teachers in 2011 with Act 10. After record spending cuts to Wisconsin schools, Vos and the GOP-gerrymandered Wisconsin Assembly gave roughly only a paltry third of the funding increases to education requested by Gov. Tony Evers. This small increase, after the record cuts of recent years, then led Vos to feign frustration by asking, what are they doing with all that money?

Big cuts to teacher compensation and a talk-radio climate of hostility toward educators led many of our best teachers to head for the exits. Moreover, given the treatment meted out to teachers, there is now a shortage of applicants to teacher training programs. This result was predicted at the time, but the GOP proceeded anyway, for the “reforms” both freed up funds for subsidies to GOP special interest donors, while “defunding” the First Amendment speech of teachers through weakening their unions (remembering that it is the GOP itself which defines money as speech in the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court ruling). The ultimate bill for this Nixonian power play has been paid by Wisconsin students, who now have fewer experienced teachers educating them.

One of the ways Wisconsin schools have triaged the emergency teacher shortage since the Vos/Walker “reforms” has been to allow both more uncredentialed people to teach, while allowing others to teach in areas they were not originally credentialed in. The latter is analogous to having a cardiologist work in an oncology unit. All doctors have a general sense of biology, but you are going to get best results when physicians work in their area of specialized training.

The predictable results are now coming in. Student performance is down. The clean-up, if funded at all, will likely take years and prove expensive. For now, our less well-educated students will on balance earn less money as graduates, meaning less money available to spend in Wisconsin on the goods and services our businesses provide, and lower tax receipts for the state. Lower educational performance also correlates with increased crime and incarceration, thus adding yet another cost to Vos and the GOP’s reforms.

While teachers are not the only group to consult when reforming education, they certainly must be among those included. Instead, drastic changes were made the past decade that not only ignored teachers, but that attacked them. Let’s hope for less ideological and more rational policy construction going forward in the great tradition of the “Wisconsin Idea.

A version of this story originally ran in the Cap Times.

Jeffrey Sommers is Professor of Political Economy & Public Policy in the Department of African &African Diaspora Studies and a Senior Fellow, Institute of World Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His book on the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson), is The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model.