Wisconsin-style reforms could boost funding for Washington public schools


Amid the swirl and controversy of the recall election in Wisconsin, the underlying policies the state legislature enacted more than a year ago by passing Act 10 have been steadily implemented. Now that the dust has settled, it’s a good time to review the changes Wisconsin enacted, and whether they offer practical ways our own lawmakers can improve public education for Washington’s children.

The issue is especially pressing because our state supreme court ruled in the McCleary decision that the legislature needs to provide better public schools. A new report from Wisconsin shows the reforms adopted there have freed up millions in new dollars for public education. This is good news for Washington’s cash-strapped lawmakers.

While media reporting about Wisconsin focused on street demonstrations, protestors occupying the capitol building, and dissident lawmakers fleeing across state lines, a surprising consensus has emerged among policy experts. It turns out the Wisconsin reforms, despite all the heated rhetoric and predictions of doom, are quietly working. Here are some examples.

Madison Schools – with the savings from Act 10, the superintendent of the state capitol’s schools announced plans to expand kindergarten, open a new middle school, offer a free employee health benefit option, and avoid any teacher layoffs.

Kimberly Area Schools – a new health plan saved $821,000, and employee pension contributions will save a further $1.3 million, allowing more funding for programs that benefit children.

Neehah Schools – the school board in this small town district saved more than $4.5 million through policy changes made possible by Act 10.

Green Bay Schools – school officials saved $12 million through collective bargaining changes, without increasing class sizes or cutting programs for students.

Racine Schools – the school board realized $25 million in savings, mostly through a more affordable health plan and increased employee retirement contributions.

In case you think these are just selective cases, see the Wisconsin report “2011 Act 10 – Reforms and Results,” a 52-page summary of news reports about school district savings around the state. All these school improvements were accomplished without raising taxes. The report says the statewide school levy dropped for the first time in six years, and the overall property tax burden was held to the lowest change in 15 years.

Wisconsin’s experience reveals the core strength of our country – we are not a monolithic nation run by a single central government, but a united federation of 50 republics. This unique civic arrangement, brilliantly conceived at our founding, allows for a great deal of experimentation.

One state may try an idea while the other 49 watch. If the idea works, it’s worth imitating. If it fails, it can be safely ignored, with no effect on the lives of most Americans. The same cannot be said of federally-imposed schemes, in which the same risk is imposed on everyone at the same time. What Washington can gain from being one of 50 laboratories of democracy is especially important right now.

In McCleary, our state supreme court said the legislature is failing to meet its constitutional duty to provide for the education of children. While expressing a preference for one bill, ESHB 2261, the justices were wise enough to note that, since they are not policy experts, elected officials are the ones who must choose the best way to fund schools. “This court defers to the legislature’s chosen means of discharging its Article IX, section 1 [public education] duty,” they ruled.

Act 10 gave Wisconsin school officials greater flexibility in negotiating with unions, enabling them to control rising health care costs, free up money for the classroom, avoid teacher layoffs, expand programs for kids, and even provide raises in some cases.

Washington lawmakers can learn a lot from their Great Lakes colleagues. Rather than increasing property taxes or other revenue, Wisconsin-style reforms could allow lawmakers to make better use of existing revenue and improve the education of children, all without raising taxes or laying off teachers.

Paul Guppy is vice president for research at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington state. Research assistant Marina Giloi assisted with this column. For more information visit washingtonpolicy.org.