Is Donald Trump right about what Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s education policies have done to the state’s public schools?
Trump, who is running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, is going from one opponent in the race to another — as well as people who aren’t even challenging him — to savage them in one fashion or another. Sometimes, his accusations are, well, ridiculous, such as when he disparaged Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and, by extension, all prisoners of war, for getting caught by enemies in war. Then there was the time he got mad at Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina and publicly released his cellphone number.
Trump said publicly that he could now attack Walker because a Walker supporter had said something mean about Trump (in the turnabout-is-fair-play spirit). At a rally in Iowa at Oskaloosa High School, Trump said:
“Wisconsin’s doing terribly. It’s in turmoil. The roads are a disaster because they don’t have any money to rebuild them. They’re borrowing money like crazy. They projected a $1 billion surplus, and it turns out to be a deficit of $2.2 billion. The schools are a disaster. The hospitals and education was a disaster. And he was totally in favor of Common Core, which I hate!”
He has also recently said Walker was a flip-flopper on the Core. “Scott Walker changed when he saw he was getting creamed, so now he’s not in favor,” Trump said.
So is any of this accurate?
It is true that Walker’s administration projected a $1 billion surplus but faces a $2.2 billion deficit. A story in the Chicago Tribune late last month said:
It wasn’t long ago that the forecasting arm of the Wisconsin legislature was predicting that state government by mid-2015 would be flush with a surplus topping $1 billion, which Gov. Scott Walker could have showcased in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Today, that projected surplus has morphed into a $2.2 billion budget deficit that Republican lawmakers are struggling to fix.
And it is true that Walker has been, at the very least, inconsistent on Common Core, being for it before being against it (as I wrote here). Walker’s flip-flops led to an open letter recently that was signed by an unusual coalition of groups and individuals — tea parties across Wisconsin as well as liberals and libertarians — that accuses Walker of pretending to be against Common Core but not taking the steps required to eliminate it in Wisconsin. A Walker spokesman says the governor is acting to give Wisconsin school districts the freedom to do what they want on the Core.
Are schools in Wisconsin “a disaster”? There are some mighty fine public schools (and hospitals) in the state. State Superintendent Tony Evers noted in a recent statement:
“Wisconsin is nationally renowned for its quality public schools. We are a leader among the states in graduation rates, Advanced Placement participation, and ACT scores because of our highly trained educators and the support of families and local communities. The citizens of Wisconsin — measured by budget hearings, local advocacy, and recent polls — voiced their overwhelming support for our public schools and increasing funding in this budget.”
But it is important to know that the May 2015 statement from Evers was part of a harsh condemnation of state legislators who were, he said, “designing a plan that erodes the basic foundation of Wisconsin’s public school system.” And it was those same legislators who walked back some of Walker’s proposed K-12 budget cuts, considering them too draconian.
As soon as Walker became governor in January 2011, he began cutting public education funding, which was already down from 2008, just before the Great Recession. According to this 2014 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the per-pupil funding from state government in 2011-2012 under Walker’s budget was $5,544, a decline of 8.33 percent from 2010-2011. That placed Wisconsin, in terms of state funding, No. 25 on the list of states, with the highest being Vermont, at $15,600, and the lowest being Arizona, at $3,801 — though the dollar amount was far closer to the lowest state than the highest.
In September 2014, PolitiFact Wisconsin, a joint initiative of PolitiFact.com and the Journal Sentinal, or JSOnline.com, wrote that a statement by the Greater Wisconsin Committee saying that “Scott Walker cut school funding more per student than any governor in America” is “mostly true.”
As of October 2014, according to the Wisconsin Budget Project, an initiative of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families:
Wisconsin ranks 5th worst in the country in depth of cuts to school funding since the start of the  recession…. Wisconsin has cut state support for investment in schools by 15% per student since 2008, a deeper cut than all but four other states, according to a new version of a report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
That 15% cut (in inflation-adjusted spending) means the state is spending $1,014 less on each student in fiscal year 2015 compared to 2008. When measured in dollars per student, Wisconsin’s cut is larger than all other states except for Alabama.
Most states are spending less on education than they did before the recession, even if their cuts weren’t as deep as the ones made in Wisconsin. But some states, including our neighbor Minnesota, have taken a different approach and increased resources for classrooms. State support for education in Minnesota increased by 3.8% per student between 2008 and 2015, or $383.
The result? From the Wisconsin Budget Project in 2014:
Wisconsin classrooms have fewer teachers, resulting in more crowded classrooms and less individualized attention for students. Over the last seven years, the number of teachers in Wisconsin public schools has fallen by 4,300, even as student enrollment has increased slightly….Wisconsin still has fewer students per teacher than the national average, but our rank has been dropping. In 2004-05, Wisconsin ranked 18th among the states in the number of students per teacher. By 2011-12, Wisconsin’s ranking had dropped to 30th.
Meanwhile, the schools have seen a rising percentage of students from low-income families, according to the Wisconsin Budget Project:
The rising number of low-income students presents challenges for Wisconsin schools. Children from low-income families lag their peers in educational achievement. They also are less likely to graduate from high school and become well-educated, healthy members of Wisconsin’s skilled workforce.
In the 2013-14 school year, 43% of Wisconsin children in public schools — or 359,000 children — were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. A decade earlier, only 30% of students qualified for free or reduced lunches.
This month, Walker signed a new two-year budget that critics say will do serious harm to public education. For example:
- A majority of public school districts in Wisconsin will receive less funding this year, and no school district’s state funding will keep up with inflation. Walker had proposed cutting $127 million in K-12 funding, but Republican lawmakers restored the money in their proposal, at the same time spending millions more to expand a school voucher program that uses public money to fund private education.
- School vouchers are being expanded, with more families allowed to apply for taxpayer support of private schools. Most of Wisconsin’s voucher schools are religious and subject to minimal public oversight. (For instance, voucher schools do not have to follow the state’s law prohibiting discrimination against students on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, marital or pregnancy status. Nor are they subject to the state’s open meetings and records requirements.) Furthermore, Walker signed a new and complicated “special-needs voucher” law that was opposed by all special education advocacy groups because of its detrimental effect on protections for special education students.
- Walker had proposed slashing $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system but had to settle for the legislature’s $250 million cut.
Trump may well support some of Walker’s school reforms. In his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” he wrote:
Our public schools are capable of providing a more competitive product than they do today. Look at some of the high school tests from earlier in this century and you’ll wonder if they weren’t college-level tests. And we’ve got to bring on the competition — open the schoolhouse doors and let parents choose the best school for their children.
Education reformers call this school choice, charter schools, vouchers, even opportunity scholarships. I call it competition — the American way.