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Opinion | Conservative Reforms Worked Wonders in Blue Wisconsin

5 min read

A caseworker once came into my office with tears in her eyes, offering to take a cut in pay to keep her newer colleagues on the job. Milwaukee County, where I served as the top executive at the time, was forced to lay off staff members after deep cuts in state aid to local governments and schools before I became governor of Wisconsin.

Under the old union contract system, which was based on seniority, the last in is the first out. Many of those facing the layoffs were young and had families.

In an attempt to avoid layoffs, we tried to be innovative and proposed 35-hour workweeks — one a month for four months. I, too, would take the cut in pay. The union bosses, however, said no. I still remember that day.

Our reforms in Wisconsin — known as Act 10 — changed that by all but eliminating collective bargaining for government employees. This puts the taxpayers and the officials they elect back in charge of their state and local governments, instead of unelected union bureaucrats.

Now staffing and pay can be driven by merit and performance. Schools can put the best teachers in the classroom and keep them there. Our reforms also provided freedom of choice to workers. They can choose whether they want to be part of a union or not.

When a Democratic governor and Democrats in the State Legislature cut funding to local governments in 2009 and 2010, school districts like Milwaukee’s were forced to lay off teachers because the union contract didn’t leave them any other options. Our reforms changed that relationship and helped school districts save billions of dollars.

Before Act 10, most school district employees in the state paid little or nothing for their health insurance and retirement. Now they pay something, although still far less than the average citizen in Wisconsin. Previously, most school districts were required to provide health insurance from a plan affiliated with the teachers’ union. Now they can bid out, and districts have saved millions of dollars — money that can go into the classroom.

Protesters claimed our reforms would hurt education, but the reforms we enacted a decade ago are still working. Wisconsin continues to have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the nation, and our ACT scores continue to be some of the highest among states where every student takes the exam.

Taxpayers have also benefited from our reforms. Since 2011, their overall tax burden has dropped by more than $13 billion. Property taxes and income taxes were lower when we left office than when we started, and we relieved the tax burden on two of the largest industries that employ people in our state: manufacturing and agriculture.

Critics started complaining several years ago that good teachers were being recruited to larger school districts for more responsibility and higher compensation. In 2018, however, I signed an initiative that helped rural schools offset challenges related to economics of scale and staffing. We also provided special help in our budget to districts like Milwaukee that had unique needs related to staffing. Most important, rewarding great teachers is a good thing.

A paper published in the August edition of The American Economic Journal examines the effects of our reforms that gave school districts in Wisconsin full autonomy to redesign teacher pay. The paper shows that “the introduction of flexible pay raised salaries of high-quality teachers, increased teacher quality (due to the arrival of high-quality teachers from other districts and increased effort) and improved student achievement.”

The crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the stranglehold many big government union bosses have on their communities. Union officials and administrators in Virginia’s Fairfax County Schools pushed to let school district employees jump the line for vaccinations this year yet refused to return to the classroom until months later.

Even Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago recognized the damage done to students — particularly Black and Hispanic children — who had not been in the classroom for nearly a year. In February she expressed her ongoing frustration, saying, “We are failing those children by not giving them the options to return to school. Failing grades. Depression. Isolation. And so much more.”

Sadly, the union bosses fought the mayor throughout the process, even though Roman Catholic schools in Chicago have been open since last fall. Cases like this suggest that more states and jurisdictions could use our common-sense reforms. If Chicago were in Wisconsin, school officials would determine whether their school system was open and under what circumstances — not the union bosses.

President Franklin Roosevelt raised concerns about government unions, writing, “all government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” Our one omission in Act 10 was exempting firefighters and police officers, but the failure of union leaders to allow teachers to return to school in Chicago affirmed our concern over a public safety disaster if the same thing happened in even one community in Wisconsin during the debate over what is now Act 10.

Overall, our reforms did more than just help schools and local governments. During my time in office, unemployment in Wisconsin dropped below the previous record low of 3 percent as more people were working than ever before. Median household income was up, as were wages. We balanced the budget every year with a surplus, fully funded our retirement system and had a rainy-day fund 190 times as large as when we started.

The true test of our reforms is that they are still working — a decade after we enacted them. If common-sense conservative ideas can work in a blue state like Wisconsin, they can work anywhere.

Scott Walker is the president of Young America’s Foundation, a conservative student organization. He was governor of Wisconsin from 2011 to 2019.

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