Commentary

Cutting Funding, Opposing Labor Rules, Doesn’t Make You ‘Anti-Education’

This article appeared in Inside Sources on August 28, 2015. It appeared as a Counterpoint piece, answering the question, “Is Wisconsin’s Scott Walker the anti-education candidate?”

Shallow thinking makes it easy to conclude that someone who cuts spending on schools, or resists the demands of teachers unions and professors, must be “anti-education.” This may be the case for some who have contemplated Wisconsin governor and GOP presidential aspirant Scott Walker, who has famously — or infamously — worked to break down public schooling labor rules and trim spending in his state.

No doubt many who might think Walker is anti-education concluded this when he championed Act 10, much to the chagrin of thousands of eventual statehouse occupiers. That legislation, among many things, curtailed public school collective bargaining and ended teachers’ forced payment of union dues.

There are good arguments for unionization. But opposing it in public schools doesn’t mean one is anti-education.

For one thing, the conviction that no one should be forced to join a union can be held by people of good faith regardless of unionization’s educational or employment effects. Protecting basic freedom would seem to prohibit government from requiring people to become part of an organization they do not wish to join.

Trimming public-school funding and curbing status-quo power are not “anti-education.” Indeed, they may be quite the opposite.

There is also good reason to believe that unionization is bad for education. For instance, one-size-fits-all contracts make it more difficult to attract good candidates to teach subjects with heavy demand outside of education, such as math and science. They curb schools’ ability to award good performers and deal with bad ones. And seniority and transfer provisions can result in schools with more challenging populations having fewer experienced teachers.

Speaking of tenure, another major reason some might affix the “anti-education” label to Walker is his support for ending state-statute-guaranteed tenure for University of Wisconsin professors. Indeed, Walker has been equated with Adolf Hitler for his higher education stances.

Even if you think tenure is crucial, it does not mean those who disagree are against education. There are legitimate reasons to want to loosen tenure protections, ranging from universities’ need to streamline operations in a world of finite resources, to a belief that no one should be essentially guaranteed employment on the taxpayer dime.

And like public school unionization, Ivory Tower tenure may be a net loss for education, insulating long-standing professors from accountability for lax teaching, researching, or both, and contributing to a two-tiered workforce of tenured professors in the penthouse and hordes of low-paid adjuncts below.

Accusing Walker of being anti-education could also be about money. Funding has certainly been a bone of contention in higher education, with Walker supporting a cut to the University of Wisconsin of $300 million over two years in exchange for more university autonomy.

Before jumping to conclusions, though, it is crucial to look at overall spending. According to the system’s 2014-15 operating budget, the University of Wisconsin was set to spend nearly $6.1 billion last school year. $150 million in one year would be just a 2.5 percent trimming. And money not going to the university could be applied to other, possibly more important state needs, or stay with hard-working taxpayers.

According to state K-12 estimates, Wisconsin public schools spent $13,196 per pupil in 2010-11 — budgeted before Walker took office — and in 2013-14 (the latest with available data) spent $12,705. Prior to Walker, spending hadn’t been that low since, well, just 2008-09. Meanwhile, though it is impossible to confidently attribute National Assessment of Educational Progress — the “Nation’s Report Card” — scores to Walker, they don’t support the idea he has hurt education. Depending on the grade and subject, scores either rose slightly or stayed constant between 2011 and 2013.

Perhaps it is Walker’s support for expanding K-12 choice that sticks in the craw of some who might consider him anti-education. Again, people can disagree on choice, but one cannot conclude that liking choice is anti-education. Indeed, 11 of the 12 top-quality studies examining private-school choice programs have found significant benefits for at least some groups and no negative effects, typically at a fraction of public school costs.

One other thing may lead some to conclude that Walker is anti-education: he never finished college. But he is governor of Wisconsin and a major presidential candidate; he has likely been pretty successful in achieving his goals. In light of this, rather than being “anti-education,” it may be more accurate to say his decision to leave college was “smart.”

Trimming public-school funding and curbing status-quo power are not “anti-education.” Indeed, they may be quite the opposite.

Neal McCluskey is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.