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Scott Walker's Education Victory

The subhead reads: Union reforms have freed more money for classrooms in Wisconsin. And not only in Wisconsin.

A reader praised what's happening in Oconomowoc High School, cutting the high school staff from 60 to 45. Here is the superintendent's statement. Block that metaphor: asserting they can build a plane while flying it.

Oconomowoc High School plan brings transformation

By Patricia Neudecker
May 9, 2012

I support the teaching profession, administration, school boards and public education. Above balancing the needs of adults, however, my main responsibility is for students and the environments necessary for their learning.

Hundreds of decisions must be made daily to support that learning environment. Some decisions are easy, obvious and routine; some are difficult, painful and even courageous. All decisions are subject to both support and criticism. In a democratic environment with local control for schools, I wouldn't want it any other way.

A transformational plan for high school staffing was presented recently to the Oconomowoc School Board. The plan reallocates resources, human and financial, and deploys them where they are needed the most. Across seven departments at Oconomowoc High School, an original staff of 60 will be reduced to a staff of 45. The 45 teachers each will be assigned an additional class section and will be compensated $14,000 each for that addition and the loss of some preparation time within the school day.

Unfortunately, 15 positions will be eliminated and teachers will be personally affected. Some teachers are eligible for retirement, some will be reassigned based on licensure and, unfortunately, nine will be laid off. The plan also generates a recurring savings of over $500,000 annually, maintains all programs and services for high school students and does not increase class sizes.

The plan has been both supported and criticized. It has been called courageous, bold, forward-thinking and long overdue. It also has been called destructive, ill-conceived, threatening and doomed to fail. You may be surprised to know that I understand all reactions.

The teacher reaction is multifaceted. Those who criticize the plan do so because they claim there is no way they can teach another section and be effective. They also claim they cannot give up their protected prep time and be effective. They of course empathize with their colleagues who will lose their jobs. They are also uncomfortable in the new Act 10 environment, where layoffs are now determined by multiple factors listed in the employee handbook, rather than just seniority.

Some teachers are most comfortable with and protective of the status quo, and that is understandable because that is the way education has always been. We have an education model that is over 100 years old, and change has been difficult.

Some teachers are excited about the new possibilities. Many already have transformed their teaching methods and used technology with great success to personalize and customize the learning environment. Some already are teaching an additional section and have been compensated through language that existed in previous collective bargaining agreements. Overloads and pay for loss of prep time within the school day are not new concepts. These teachers also empathize with colleagues who will lose their jobs. They are anxious about the additional pay, yet find it awkward to benefit while others lose. Many teachers understand that, like it or not, education must change, and they want to be part of designing that change.

Public support of the plan varies. Many say they see no problem with high school teachers being expected to now teach six hours out of an 8 1/2 -hour workday. Many say teaching is a profession and professional jobs should be based on performance, not just seniority. Many say the plan is courageous and long overdue. While many do not understand how difficult teaching really is, they understand the costs associated with an old system, and they expect leadership for change.

Some families already have left the public school system and demand support for privatized education through charters, vouchers and open enrollment options. Parents also ask what this may mean for their children. Some appreciate the protection of programs and classes but worry that teachers will be overwhelmed. Others say this is exactly the changed system they want for their children.

As superintendent, I have many thoughts as well. I will not jeopardize the quality reputation we have worked hard to build. My decisions will support students, programs and the resources for their learning. I am confident we will move forward successfully because I have confidence in our staff.

This plan is a vote of confidence for our teachers and administrators and an opportunity to create the personalized learning environments we could only imagine before. I am confident we will have good teachers working with our students, and we will support them.

I also think about the future of public education. I will continue to advocate for financial support for our schools at both state and national levels. Public education is the cornerstone of a democratic society, and not a day goes by that I don't think about threats to public education.

I will, however, accept my responsibility as a superintendent to make decisions, which are critical for our future. With limited revenue increases of less than 1% and growing costs, we must find ways to reallocate the resources we have.

We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we do not have all of the answers. We do, however, have the necessary components for a successful transformation. We have a quality staff, strong leadership, a dedicated School Board and a community that wants the very best for its kids.

I believe we can build a plane while we are flying it, because we will create a new model, not merely support the status quo. Change is difficult - but not impossible. If we don't have the fortitude for changing the education system, I am not sure what kind of system we ultimately will be left with. And that is something for all of us to think about.

Patricia Neudecker, PhD, is superintendent of the Oconomowoc Area School District.

Note that Kimberley A. Strassel posits the Wisconsin vote as being about facing down a union machine. In Wisconsin: What Happens When Movements Turn Into Campaigns Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report asks, "How did we get from hundreds of thousands in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin demanding union rights for everybody and fundamental economic justice for all, to a desultory set of Democratic campaigns for the candidates who, as they say, sucked the least, and ended up losing."

Dixon observes that the union turned a potential mass movement into a political campaign and "political campaigns are pretty much where movements go to die."

The campaigns that come out of movements still retain and utilize lots of horizontal communication. But instead of that chatter reinforcing the independence and dynamic energy and the risk-taking spirit of youth, it becomes all about the political processes and compromises needed to win the next election. And when a movement's core values are no longer the gold standard, there are lots of compromises to be made. It can be a pretty quick slide from hard hitting demands like full employment with a living wage, Medicare for all, free quality education as a human right, stopping the bailouts, guaranteeing union rights for everyone and ending the imperial wars to electing the candidate that sucks the least, even only a little less. . . .

You always lose the movement. You usually lose the campaign. And you always lose the initiative. Labor leaders handed the ball to elected Democrats, to campaign consultants and media hacks. They took the struggle from the street, where they had the advantage, to the TV and radio airwaves and in social media, where the unlimited spending allowed recent court decisions and corporate control over mass media made all the difference. . . .

It is well worth reading the rest of Bruce Dixon's insights on the Wisconsin movement that was morphed into a political campaign.

Typically, Kimberley A. Strassel is more interested in a vote that "faced down a union machine." Wall Street Journal readers are ecstatic. But Strassel makes an interesting point:

President Obama's stimulus handouts turned emergencies into catastrophes. This gave reform-minded governors the opening to argue that big change was a prerequisite to continued dollars for schools.

This echoes the worry of those opposed to the Race to the Top disbursements. They asked, What happens when those rather meager funds run out? We're beginning to see what happens>

By Kimberley A. Strassel

Overhauling a state government, facing down a union machine, beating back a recall—Scott Walker hasn't exactly been a slacker. Yet hidden among the Wisconsin governor's reforms has been another significant success: He's helped change the education paradigm.

Conservatives have pushed education reform for decades, with notable successes. But the debate had also become predictable. Republicans argued for systemic change; Democrats argued for more money. The fight was largely confined to the education sphere, with conservatives arguing education reform for education's sake.

The Walker breakthrough was to integrate education into the broader fiscal and structural dispute. His argument: Wisconsin is broke. We can continue to pour money into the public-union monopoly, forcing us to cut further from priorities (namely, education). Or we can enact broad structural changes, the savings from which we can use to better our state (notably, schools).

"The argument was two-dimensional previously," says Scott Jensen, senior adviser at the American Federation for Children. Mr. Walker, "by undoing the bigger state infrastructure that locked in inefficiencies, [has] freed up additional funds to flow to the classroom, all without asking for more from taxpayers."

Unions and liberals have argued that education "reform" is really about starving public schools of money and resources. Mr. Walker's budget victory has shown that structural government reform is the surest way to put more dollars into kids.

It's resonating because taxpayers see it working. In addition to limiting collective bargaining, the Walker reforms let schools competitively bid on health insurance, asked employees to contribute to health and pension plans, and introduced merit pay. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the pension provision alone will save schools $600 million over two years, while competitive health bidding is already saving $220 per student per year.

Places like the New Berlin school district, with its 4,700 students, have already reduced health-care costs by $2.3 million, retirement costs by $1.25 million, and other liabilities by $15 million. The district hired new staff, reduced class sizes, and added programs. The Shorewood district saved $537,000 simply by bidding out its health contract (previously run by a union outfit), and also reduced insurance premiums for its teachers.

Parents are also seeing the alternative via liberal school districts that rushed to lock in contracts prior to the reforms. Among them were the Milwaukee, Kenosha and Janesville districts, which this year reported the largest number of teacher layoffs in the state. Those districts accounted for 40% of the state's teacher firings, though they educate only 12.8% of Wisconsin kids.

Mr. Walker wasn't the first to link broader reform to education, though the national spotlight has given him the big megaphone. Even before passing his own sweeping education reforms in early 2011, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels argued that structural reform was the best path to better educational outcomes. He's ended collective bargaining rights, reformed Indiana's Medicaid program, and instituted a consumer-driven health plan (based on health savings accounts, or HSAs) for state employees, among other changes.

Today, 56% of Indiana's budget (the highest percentage in the nation) goes to schools—and Mr. Daniels hasn't raised taxes or run a deficit. This will be the first year the state boasts full-day kindergarten. Fourteen districts have recently joined the state's HSA plan, already saving more than $5.5 million. Limits on bargaining put school administrators back in charge of budgets, allowing them to use their savings to real effect. "The point is that so many of these reforms translate into resources that can be liberated to do what is needed for K through 12," Mr. Daniels tells me.

Elsewhere, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, arguing for budget sanity, passed a sweeping bill in 2011 that restricts collective bargaining for educators, eliminates tenure, institutes merit pay in schools and mandates the use of more efficient technologies. Louisiana's Bobby Jindal passed his own education and pension reforms this year, making the budget argument. New Jersey, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and more have passed, or are working on, reforms that variously tackle collective bargaining, tenure, merit-pay, and school choice.

Democrats are resisting, but they helped set the stage. By 2010, states were already on a fiscal cliff when the sudden evaporation of President Obama's stimulus handouts turned emergencies into catastrophes. This gave reform-minded governors the opening to argue that big change was a prerequisite to continued dollars for schools.

This has been a quiet revolution, masked by the broader fight over public unions, but it is big, and growing. Self-government is good for many reasons. Mr. Walker has helped show that top among those reasons are kids.

Write to kim@wsj.com

— Kimberley A. Strassel with comments by Bruce Dixon
Wall Street Journal





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