The Threat to Wisconsin’s Once-Superior Education System from Republican Policy and Budgets

By Tom Davis

Wisconsin traditionally has had one of the best educational systems in the country, which is one of the strangest aspects of the current Governor Walker legislative budget, with its huge cuts to both public education and the University of Wisconsin system. Why try to reform a system that has worked so well for Wisconsin for so many years? Wisconsin “has ranked first, second or third every year since 1994,” according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania[1].

Walker has claimed his policies are improving education in the state, but Annenberg and other political fact organizations disagree. There are no significant improvements in student performance in either poorer-performing or high performing school districts. One of the scariest facts about education is that teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers[2] and fewer students are enrolling in teacher education programs[3]. Without a stream of good teachers coming to the profession, the long-term prognosis is negative, not positive.

Too Many Teachers are Depressed About Their Decision to Become a Teacher

Both of my daughters are educators in Wisconsin. Our oldest daughter teaches in a Catholic school after working in a homeless shelter and other places as a teacher for years, and our youngest daughter is a war-tested veteran of the Green Bay public school district.

Both daughters are depressed about their chosen profession. Attacks on public schools harm other schools too. Like teachers I have talked to around the country, they feel the unrelenting political attacks on educators and schools make their profession one of the country’s most hated professions. Governor Walker, drum major in front of the band of educational reformers that trumpet the genius of private charter schools and the erosion of America’s leadership in education, depresses them. They wonder how a man who is all about monied interests could possibly become Governor of a state with Wisconsin’s progressive history. They both question their decision to become teachers. Most of the great teachers I know are equally as depressed. Many wish they had never become educators.

Does Walker Really Believe He Is a Genius When It Comes to Education Policy?

I do not know how Governor Walker in his heart of hearts thinks about public education. Maybe he really believes rhetoric he spews out in aggressive soundbites and expressions of his superior-to-the-common-folk attitude. Maybe he believes magic really exists and that he is the wizard who can speak incantations and make the education system better by eliminating funding that allows teachers to live a middle class lifestyle and feel good about themselves and provides school supplies and books learners need if they are to be taught. Maybe he and Republican Governors and politicians like him really believe that by giving wealth to the wealthy the poor will be grateful for their poverty. Maybe he believes that sucking wealth from the middle and poorer classes and giving it to richest people in Wisconsin is the way to bring prosperity to the state. After all, if giant corporations are rich, will not jobs flow to the under-classes like manna from heaven? Even if the wealthy corporations do not pay middle class wages to those doing those jobs and send streams of jobs overseas?

But the truth is that Walker is not a wizard. If he believes in the magic his words spew into public airwaves, he is a fool. If you starve government funded public education, then you weaken that system and can easily destroy its spirit if not its life. I do not believe Governor Walker is a fool. I believe he has sided with the uber rich class because he knows where his bread is buttered.

The Finnish Education Example Compared to Walker’s Incompetence

If Walker really wants to improve Wisconsin’s education system, he needs to take lessons from one of the best education systems in the world in Finland[4]. What strikes scholars who have studied that system is that Finland’s educators feel as if they work in the world’s best profession. Politicians are not continually commenting about how terrible their system is. They do not require endless standardized tests and benchmarks that guarantee long-term failure, the legacy of Republican George Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative. They are not obsessed with “accountability” and making sure Finnish taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

Instead, the Finnish people and their leaders believe education is important and that those who deliver learning to children and college students are among the best, most valuable people in society. The result is simple. In Finland educators who are honored deliver an educational system that has been among the world’s best educational systems for decades. In Wisconsin, when we were building a world class educational system rather than tearing one down, we used to also believe in the value of teachers and education. It was a good investment for all of our futures.

Before it Became Fashionable to Tear Educators and the Education Down, the U.S. Had One of the World’s Best Educational Systems

When I was young the United States had the world’s best education system. In fact, the system was so good it created the largest middle class the world has ever seen and created endless streams of jobs built from innovation, industry, skills, knowledge, and strong values. It was part of the secret to making the United States the world’s wealthiest country. When I was young my parents would have never dreamed that education would become a system that deserved to be attacked as wasteful and a bad bargain for taxpayers.

Teachers were honored, and if one of my parent’s boys got out of line with a teacher, boy, were we in trouble. Teachers were the knowledge bringers, deliverers of a good future, the key to making life better for children than it was for their parents, and as such a teacher’s words and judgments were important. They delivered prosperity to all of us.

Educators are put through endless hoops and a great deal of expense to earn the honor of touching alive minds and spirits of the young and young adults. Charter schools and for-profit colleges and universities have not outperformed the public school systems in the United States[5], as crippled as that system has become by constant attacks from the uber rich and their political allies who seem to think that if only they could have a little more freedom from regulations and a little more of the country’s wealth (after they control most of it anyway) then the entire country would benefit as they sit on their gold-plated commodes. Research has shown that private sector online colleges and universities have ripped off more students than they have benefited[6]. Sadly, some charter schools have done the same. The push for more charter schools and private sector education is just one more way to hurt the long-term future of education in Wisconsin.

Mostly good things come from educators: They show the pathway to the world’s knowledge, whether that knowledge is ancient or new, spark alive imaginations, teach self-discipline and self-reliance, tell a young person who is down that they can reach for the stars, help young people believe in themselves, encourage creative fires in classrooms and society, build reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, and make it possible for individuals to make a society that serves all of us. I chant a chant for teachers everywhere. That chant is more important than the magic-wishing incantations of a Governor Walker. I sing the intelligence of the Finns.

Wisconsin, frankly, needs to show the way the United States can get back to being a world leader in education. Devastating Door County school districts and the university by starving already too-lean operational budgets is a sure-fired way of continuing what the Republicans have already started: A slow decline into a growing educational mediocrity.

[1] The Wire. January 16, 2015. “Scott Walker’s Education Boast”, Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania. Accessed at, 5/1/15.
[2] Seidel, Aly. July 18, 2014. “The Teacher Dropout Crises” nprED. Accessed at, 4/30/15.
[3] According to Title II reports from the United States Department of Education, enrollment in education programs is continuing a downward trend. This data is for 2013-2014:
Total Enrollment

Current Year Previous Year % Change
9561  10998  -13.07% 

Accessed at 5/1/15.
[4] Lepi, Katy. May 3, 2014. “The Top 10 (And Counting) Education Systems In The World” Edudemic.
[5] Diane Ravitch, one of the top researchers in education in the United States, has pointed out in her blog, Diane Ravitch’s Blog, that “around 8.2 percent of public school campuses are classified as failing, but nearly 17 percent of charter schools are designated as failing. In fact, within three years of being included on the low-performing list, only seven out of approximately 8,500 traditional public schools are still designated as failing.” Blog post, “Texas Superintendent Has Plan to Save Children from Failing Charter Schools” Accessed at, 5/1/15.
[6] Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, United States Senate. July 30, 2012, 112th Congress, 2d session.  For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.


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