School cuts give some Wisconsin voters buyer's remorse
Barb Feest says she wishes she could take back her vote for Wisconsin governor.
The Associated Press
BROOKFIELD, Wis. — Barb Feest says she wishes she could take back her vote for Wisconsin governor.
The suburban Milwaukee woman cast her ballot for Republican Scott Walker in November. But she shook her head recently as she listened at a public forum to how his proposed budget cuts could affect schools.
"He's trying to balance the budget on the backs of teachers," Feest said. "It took so long to get our schools where they are, and they're going to cut it down in, what, two years? It's not right."
Almost five months after the election, Feest and some other Republican voters are expressing doubts about their choices at the ballot box. They consider themselves fiscal conservatives, but many of the voters who put Walker and other GOP leaders into office are having second thoughts, largely because the cuts they seek could put the quality of their local schools at risk.
To ease a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit, Walker has sought to eliminate collective-bargaining rights for most public employees, including teachers — a move that has stirred an intense national debate about union rights and drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol.
But that's not all. Walker's two-year spending plan includes an 8 percent cut in aid to schools — about $835 million. And he wants to require districts to reduce their property-tax authority by an average of $550 per pupil — a move that makes it more difficult for schools to compensate for lost money.
The forum drew about 100 people. About half, including Feest, came to find out how bad the cuts would be and express their support for teachers. Others who spoke supported Walker's proposals, and some even suggested the governor seek more teacher concessions such as raising the minimum retirement age above 55.
High-school math teacher Ronn Blaha, 41, said he felt like a "punch-drunk boxer," taking one hit after another from the community because Walker had vilified the entire teaching profession.
"I voted for him because I wanted some restraint on frivolous spending," said Blaha, adding that he regrets his vote. "I did not anticipate that he considered education a frivolity."
Walker isn't the only governor proposing education cuts. Under the budget offered by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, state aid to K-12 schools would increase, but overall funding would drop because of allocation changes and loss of stimulus dollars. Individual districts will learn more in days to come.
Even longtime Republican voters are worried about the consequences of education cuts. And some are asking whether the quest for a balanced budget justifies gutting top schools that took decades to create.
"It all concerns me," said Donna Leslie, a West Chester, Ohio, mother of a high-school senior. "There are cuts that need to be made, but I don't think we're going about it in the right way."
Some acknowledge classroom cuts are inevitable, and many are looking for alternatives to expose their children to music and art. Others are confident that school officials will find ways to absorb the cuts without letting education suffer.
Leslie said she expects school funding to continue declining and anti-tax attitudes to make it more difficult to pass school-related tax increases.
Wisconsin's cuts affect every district, including wealthy Waukesha County's Elmbrook schools, which face a $4.2 million budget shortfall in part because of declining enrollments and a hampered ability to raise money through property taxes.
To compensate, the district may have to lay off teachers and ask the rest to teach an additional class period, Superintendent Matt Gibson said. Art and music classes may be cut, and average class sizes may creep upward, he added.
Those outcomes are acceptable to Andrea Boll, 51, who has three children in the Elmbrook district. As long as the core curriculum in subjects such as math and science remains strong, she said, parents could help pay extra for extracurricular sports and music programs.
However, some parents said severe budget cuts could have other long-term effects.
Andy Vrakas, 47, who has children in the fourth and sixth grades, said good schools do more than help students — they also increase property values and attract employers.
Vrakas, an independent who has voted for Republican governors but not for Walker, said he might even home-school his children if certain programs are cut or scaled back.
"Long term, if test scores decline and the reputation declines, people might be sorry," he said.
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