The Larson Report Progressive perspectives from Senator Chris Larson
Our neighborhood public schools are the backbone of our communities. Unfortunately, our districts have long been a target of legislative Republicans, who are hell-bent on promoting a false narrative that more, less accountable private schools are somehow the answer to all of our students’ problems. During the pandemic and for many years prior, Republicans have worked with their special interest partners to conceive and execute a coordinated assault on our schools by intentionally divesting from traditional public schools, silencing the voices of education professionals in the classroom, and criticizing as broken a system which they themselves have worked to destroy.
In this edition of the Larson Report, I will discuss efforts by the GOP to divide our communities, contrasting them with the positive, proactive approach to investing in our children's future that we should be adopting instead.
On July 8, 2021, Governor Evers partially vetoed, then signed a budget sent to him by the Republican-controlled state legislature which grossly underfunded public education. I argued against legislative Republicans who were determined to push through this neglectful and dangerously immoral budget, yet they still chose to dance in the graveyard of those who sacrificed so much for our community by offering little to no new resources for our schools.
Despite Wisconsin Republicans doing the literal bare minimum necessary to avoid losing out on federal aid, The Governor was able to meet his promise of two-thirds state funding for K-12 education in the near term by allocating 1-time federal COVID recovery dollars toward a $100 million increase in per-pupil aid. Beyond that, there was little opportunity for Evers to fix the chaos Republicans created.
Our state is still recovering from the $1 billion Walker-era education cuts of a decade ago. Now, as we continue to climb out of the pandemic, our kids still lack the resources they need to receive the education they deserve, delivered by the dedicated and capable educators who have stuck with them through thick and thin.
But what of that “literal bare minimum” I mentioned earlier? Essentially, when Congress approved COVID aid to states for K-12 education (including $2.3 billion for Wisconsin), they did so with the stipulation that states couldn’t cut their own education spending and replace it with federal dollars. They called this “maintenance of effort” and “maintenance of equity.” Instead of following the spirit of the rule, however, the GOP played a bit of a shell game by appearing to maintain spending without ensuring those dollars were actually spent in the classroom. As a result it was property owners, not our kids, who benefited most. On the floor of the senate, Republican lawmakers admitted that most school districts would likely have to go to referendum even more than they would have before just to get the funds they were already expecting.
Sadly, “Republicans did the bare minimum for schools” has become something of a tradition at this point. Receiving a quality education is one of the founding principles of our state constitution, and for Republicans to shirk that responsibility to our children is despicable.
A Pandemic of Cynicism
It is no secret that at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the state needed to pivot extremely fast to deal with the impending health issues associated with the virus. Unfortunately, these actions, whether initiated by Governor Evers or the local districts themselves, were immediately pounced on by those on the right and used as a catalyst for parents to direct their anger not at the politicians who refused to take the virus seriously, but the school districts doing everything in their power to keep kids, their families, and their teachers safe.
Prior to the start of the 2021-2022 session, GOP members and their special interest allies went community-to-community, threatening district officials with the loss of state aid and increased scrutiny if their demands were not met. They did this to stir controversy and mistrust toward local school boards while promoting voucher schools who took fewer precautions as the supposed better alternative to public community schools.
Wisconsin’s proud tradition of local control applies not just to cities, villages, or towns, to our local school districts as well. This control is given by the consent of the people and carried out by a democratically elected governing board. These hardworking, low-paid public servants are tasked with managing general school operations and setting forth a curriculum and a budget that advances the educational and personal growth of our children.
Already tasked with vast responsibilities and facing a $0 increase in state funds over the next two years, school boards and education professionals across our state have been pressured, bullied, and villainized by legislative Republican leaders in an effort to create division.
GOP leaders have done this through a series of legislative initiatives put forward to address manufactured crises. From lambasting transgender athletes to banning lessons about gender, race, or equity in our classrooms, they've been hard at work suppressing local control and capitalizing on polarizing issues toward their personal political advantage.
In a flurry of ill-intentioned legislation introduced at the very end of session, the Republican agenda towards education could not have been made more clear: Defund traditional public schools, increase scrutiny of public schools while exempting voucher schools, and if districts can’t meet these unrealistic expectations, use it as a justification to shift even more money toward unaccountable private schools.
The GOP’s Radical Education Agenda
Our communities are best served when the next generation is provided a fully-resourced, well-rounded education that supports our shared values in bettering the world around us.
Unfortunately, GOP lawmakers have used this pandemic to co-opt parent frustrations by villainizing school boards, administrators, and teachers. They have done this with one goal in mind: breaking public education. Instead of reinvesting state resources in data-driven programming within our public schools and ending the decade-long austerity measures that have driven quality educators out of the profession, Republicans offered harmful and drastic changes to Wisconsin’s K-12 schools.
Hours after refusing Governor Evers’ call to a special session to fully fund our schools, support caregivers, and return some of the $3.8 billion budget surplus to taxpayers, Republicans instead chose to shift more money into unaccountable private schools, create unfunded mandates for our public schools, and give any individual parent veto power over an entire district’s curriculum. All of this while forcing segregation into Milwaukee Public Schools, Wisconsin’s largest district, by creating 4-8 smaller, segregated school districts in their place without offering any additional resources to fund them.
"The Parental Bill of Rights” (AB 963), establishes a broad and unmanageable range of so-called “rights” that parents are to have concerning their child's education, religion, and medical care. Similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, the bill creates a direct avenue for pursuing civil litigation against school districts if teachers call a student by their preferred pronouns, for example. If this legislation were to be signed into law, public schools would be put in a position of great trepidation with every curriculum decision they make. All it would take is one upset parent and the threat of civil litigation to strip public school curriculums of any teachings that may present any semblance of discomfort. Interestingly, this “Parental Bill of Rights” does not extend to choice or independent charter schools. Apparently, Republicans are not concerned with so-called parental rights being violated in these environments.
To read more about the potential effects of this legislation, please read this analysis conducted by the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance.
Pushed by suburban Republicans with no local input,AB 966, calls for the breakup of Milwaukee Public Schools into four to eight new school districts. Singling out MPS in this way is cynical, counterproductive, and also expensive. The unfortunate reality is that Milwaukee is a city wrought with stark racial segregation. If MPS were split into several geographically distinct school districts it would mean the hyper-segregation of our public schools. The breakup would be devastating for the structures of leadership at the local level, makes no real logistical sense, and would not improve the experience of students in any way. Of course, none of that is of real import to state Republicans. They are solely interested in political talking points to take with them on the campaign trail later this year.
Finally, state Republicans have also passedAB 970, which fully expands the voucher school program to be accessible to all parents by eliminating the enrollment and income caps. The Department of Public Instruction has estimated that this expansion will cost an additional $557 million from local taxpayers in the first year. This is an absurd amount of money going towards diverting children away from our public schools. Forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for those who opt out of our public schools is ridiculous, even under the current school choice program. Forcing taxpayers to pay for rich families to attend private schools, particularly since most of the families who would become newly eligible are already attending those schools, is tremendously unfair.
While much of the harmful Republican legislation I’ve mentioned has passed the legislature, we are in the fortunate situation of having someone with a background in education like Governor Evers as the final step in the legislative process. I am confident that the Governor will use his veto power with good judgment. I cannot understate how grateful I am to have an education-first leader like Tony Evers as Governor. Far too often, his veto pen is the only thing preventing harmful legislation like these from being signed into law.
Our public schools and our educators that help these institutions to thrive make up the backbone of our society. This latest package of Republican legislation establishes their desire to categorically break down this vital structure while propping up the voucher school program in its place. There is a constant cycle of neglecting the needs of public schools in Wisconsin, only to scrutinize their performance as a means of promoting choice and independent charter schools as the alternative. Instead of directing our resources toward private schools, which are not directly accountable to families and can cherry-pick the students they want to serve, we should be utilizing state resources to create the best public school system in the country, where educators are empowered and supported to do what they love most - teach.
A Better Way Forward
It goes without saying that teaching is more than just a regular clock-in, clock-out job. Teachers work long, exhausting hours, and have a broad scope of responsibilities far beyond the classroom that too often go unnoticed. Truly, the presence and impact of our educators extend well beyond the walls of our schools. Teachers are mentors, role models, and pillars of our communities. I’d be willing to bet you can still remember the teacher who had the greatest impact on you, not just as a student, but as a human being.
As the landscape of labor evolves in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with workers fighting for higher wages and better working conditions, the profession of teaching has been somewhat insulated from these advances. Even prior to the pandemic, we were seeing fewer and fewer students pursuing teaching as a career. This trend, combined with the various stressors brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, has made teaching as a career less desirable to many. We have seen an unexpected increase in retirement amongst educators, and many have decided to change careers entirely.
While the private sector is able to react swiftly to the ebbs and flows of the labor market as conditions change, public schools lack the financial flexibility and resources to adjust pay, benefits, and working conditions in a manner that would attract new educators or convince veteran teachers to stay on. As a state legislator, I have seen the tireless advocacy of those within the teaching profession calling for a comprehensive package of legislation that finally recognizes the importance of education as a profession.
With the input of educators throughout the state, my Democratic colleagues and I have introduced a package of eight bills aiming to improve the working conditions and compensation within the profession to end the teacher shortage once and for all.
First, this package proposes that we link teacher base salary and benefits to that of our own as state legislators (SB 1059, SB 1060). Beyond base salary, we have proposed bonuses and mandated raises contingent on obtaining advanced degrees and years of experience. Notably, we have proposed a $7,000 loyalty bonus to be awarded to teachers who remain with the same school district for five years (SB 1061). The idea behind this bonus is to reward educators who have maintained continuity and built rapport with families in the district. The value of this longevity to a school community cannot be overstated.
Additionally, our package aims to ensure that no teaching work goes unpaid. Outside of the classroom, educators hold a multitude of responsibilities that often go unrecognized, and sometimes even unpaid. To end this practice, we drafted a bill which mandates that educators have at least one class period daily that is dedicated exclusively to class preparation (SB 1056). Additionally, we have introduced legislation which aims to ensure that all outside-of-class activities, such as extra-curricular events or supervision of students during lunch periods, are either voluntary or properly compensated (SB 1057). It is essential that we value our teachers for the work they do inside and outside of the classroom.
We also want to give teachers a voice in their local school boards. Under proposed legislation in this package, it would be mandated that there is a non-voting seat dedicated to one teacher representative (SB 1058). As the main decision-making body that directly impacts school districts, it only makes sense that we give educators the opportunity to be directly involved in those decisions.
Finally, we want to recruit the next generation of educators, but we recognize that many students can’t afford to take an unpaid student teaching position as they finish school. To ease that burden on prospective teachers, we are proposing a $15 minimum hourly pay for student teachers that will be covered by the state (SB 1062). Additionally, we are proposing the UW Teacher Pledge, which would create a loan repayment program for prospective educators at UW System institutions (SB 1063).
While this bill package focuses specifically on educators, the positive impacts would be felt well beyond. Research indicates that high teacher turnover has real, discernable negative impacts on student achievement. Furthermore, those negative impacts are magnified in school districts serving low-income students and students of color. There are real benefits to continuity in staffing when it comes to dynamics of mentorship and the role of educators as role models. School can be a real struggle for many students, and the presence of a trusted educator who is willing to provide the support a student needs is absolutely vital.
As a parent, I value the quality of education that my children receive in our Milwaukee Public Schools. I know that if we do better to support our educators, that positive impact will be felt not just in the classroom, but all throughout our communities. Today, we have so many talented educators, and I know for a fact that the next generation of educators will provide just as much enthusiasm and dedication to the profession as the last as long as the right conditions for success are in place. These eight bills are effectively an investment in our educators, our children, and the future of our communities.
The well-being of our state and the well-being of our public school educators are one and the same. It’s time that we entrust our teachers with the resources that our children, and our communities, need to thrive.