Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wisconsin Schools Lose More than 2,300 Positions in Current School Year

New DPI Database Provides a District-by-district Look at the 2.4% Drop in Teachers

There has been an ongoing rhetorical battle over the effects of the biennial budget and budget repair bills on Wisconsin’s public schools.  New data from the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) probably won’t settle the debate, but provides more ammunition that seems – at least upon initial reading – to bolster the arguments made by critics of the changes relating to school financing.

The latest version of the annual DPI report shows that Wisconsin’s 424 school districts lost a total of 2,312 full-time positions during the 2011-12 school year, a net loss of 2.3% of school staff statewide, compared to the previous year.  That included a drop of 1,446 teachers, which was a 2.4% loss since 2010-11.  Because the number of students remained the same, the drop in teachers caused an acceleration of the growth in class sizes that has been an ongoing challenge for Wisconsin’s schools and students. (See our August 2011 report.) 

I haven’t had a chance to carefully review the data yet, but look forward to doing so. In the meantime, you can study it on your own and can see the job changes for each school district in the state.

At the heart of the arguments about the impact on schools and Wisconsin’s K-12 students is the question of the net effect of the deep cuts the budget bill made to state school aid and local revenue caps, versus the savings to school districts from the “tools” the Governor gave local governments to reduce employee benefits.

The debate heated up recently when the Governor’s office argued that data from a survey of schools conducted by DPI and the WI Association of School District Administrators suggested that fewer positions were lost last year. The new report uses more detailed and comprehensive job numbers, as well as comparative data for each year since 2003-04.   As Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS) wrote in an article posted early today: “The new report provides a closer look at full-time staff data for all districts, and how those numbers changed from year to year.”

The Journal Sentinel article notes that Governor Walker’s spokesperson, Cullen Werwie, contends that the new DPI data supports their conclusion that the Governor’s reforms are working. He said that conclusion was supported by the fact that 43% of the staff reductions occurred in three districts - Milwaukee, Janesville and Kenosha – all of which have teachers contracts in place that shield them from the effects of legislation.

I find that line of argument unconvincing for several reasons – not the least of which is that it seems to be based on the premise that we shouldn’t be concerned about the effect on those districts. Yet even if we dismiss their pain as a short-term problem, the numbers show that many of the districts that have been able to utilize the tools are also suffering.  In fact, 73% of all districts had a net decrease in teachers.  DPI spokesman  John Johnson noted in the MJS article that there were reductions in full-time staff positions in 37 of the 52 districts that were heralded by Walker earlier this month for saving an average of $220 per pupil by changing or restructuring health insurance plans.

The other point to remember is that many districts have noted that they expect the aid cuts and reduced revenue caps to be a bigger problem for them in the coming school year.  An exacerbating factor noted in today's DPI press release, is that schools are losing $82.3 million in the coming year from the termination of assistance in the Federal Education Jobs Act.  Schools worry that all of those factors will cause another significant round of layoffs because many districts have already maxed out on the savings they can achieve by reducing health care benefits.

I think it is safe to expect a continuation of the heated dispute about the net effect of the budget changes on schools. But at least the latest data lifts some of the darkness from a topic where the debate has often generated much more heat than light.

Jon Peacock

No comments:

Post a Comment