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Governor Walker Has Storied History of Slashing Public Education

Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Gov. Scott Walker is again taking aim at public education.

This week, he announced that his budget will include a 13 percent cut to the UW System, along with a tuition freeze. 

It marks the third time since Walker took office in 2011 that he’s targeted public schools and campuses for cuts.

Walker first caused educators to gasp, after his inauguration in 2011, when he proposed Act 10. It dismantled most public unions and K-12 teachers’ collective bargaining rights. The move sparked massive protests at the State Capitol.

At about the same time, Walker proposed $1.5 billion in cuts to public education in his 2011 budget, the largest in Wisconsin’s history. One person who participated in the protests was Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Union.

“It was a one-two punch on public school students, their teachers and the parents who expect to have quality public schools,” Peterson says.

Walker defended the move, saying it was necessary to plug a huge budget hole.

“Wisconsin has a $3.6 billion deficit that we face going into the next biennium. We’re broke. Like many states across the country, we don’t have any more money,” Walker says.

Walker targeted public education again in 2013 when he expanded the school voucher program. It diverts money from public to private schools, if students would rather attend private.

Then this week, the governor announced his 2015 budget will feature a 13 percent cut in state funding for the UW System and a tuition freeze. In exchange, the system would no longer be bound by state rules governing such things as purchases or employee compensation.

Walker compares his proposal for the UW System to Act 10. It helped public schools hold down costs, while Walker cut state aid and capped property tax increases.

“I think much like we saw after Act 10, for those who saw that initially as a budget reduction, it actually ended up providing great benefit to not only the taxpayers of this state, but ultimately to the people who relied on local governments as well as the state. The same thing will be true at the UW,” Walker says. 

Credit Wisconsin State Legislature - Legislative Fiscal Bureau

There are several reasons Gov. Walker continues targeting public education for cuts, according to Mordecai Lee, Professor of Governmental Affairs at UWM. Lee says one reason, is that education takes up a huge chunk of the state budget. Another, is that the governor has faced deficits in two of the past three budget cycles, including, now.

“The news media depicts a deficit as a bad thing, as a problem. But, if a person is a conservative Republican, then budget deficits are not a problem, they are welcome because they become an opportunity for cutting government spending,” Lee says.

Conservative Republicans champion smaller government. Lee also thinks the governor is keeping his White House bid in mind, including when he said on conservative talk radio this week that university professors need to “start teaching more classes and doing more work.”

“For somebody running for the Republican nomination for President, it’s an applause line for the conservative Republican base to say that teachers should teach more at the university. So, I think this is both good politics on a presidential level and good budget politics on the state level,” Lee says.

Some liberal pundits have pointed out this week, that Walker lacks a college degree. The governor has reminded people, that his Democratic predecessor also cut education funding.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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