‘Rural districts couldn’t compete:’ Wisconsin’s schools after a decade of Act 10

FRIENDSHIP, Wis. — When the legislation that would later become known as Act 10 first began to engulf Wisconsin in one of its bitterest political battles, Adams-Friendship school district administrator Tom Wermuth was a principal in the River Valley school district in Spring Green, about forty miles west of Madison.

He’d started there in 1998, wearing many hats throughout his tenure including teacher, pupil services director, principal, eventual district administrator. He held that last title until 2019, when after considering retirement–he opted instead to move to Adams County, where he took the district administrator role.

He’s used to tightly-knit, rural districts and the positives and challenges that come with them. Close to Madison and the protests that came with Act 10, he would stay in the industry as many others left in the wake of the legislation that cut collective bargaining rights for public employees and effectively cut their paychecks by increasing their share of benefit payments. The chaotic, bitterly-fought passage of the bill prompted a wave of recall elections and forever reshaped Wisconsin politics in the decade that followed.

Shrinking Rural Districts

The 1,500-student district in rural south central Wisconsin used to have four elementary schools, Wermuth said; it’s considered a declining enrollment district. He arrived in mid-2019, after they’d weathered much of the aftermath of Act 10, the budget cuts that followed, and the ongoing affects of a complex school funding system first put in place in the early 1990s that caps how much funding school districts in Wisconsin can raise, based on student count.

After Act 10, he said, working in the industry was harder. His district in River Valley had experienced many similar effects as Adams-Friendship.

“Teachers, in my opinion, were vilified,” he explained.

He estimates Adams-Friendship lost 60% of its staff–including teachers, principals, counselors, and therapists–in the years following Act 10. Some left for districts with better benefits, others took early retirements as the effects of Act 10 saw retirement packages begin to change.

“They felt they had to take that jump onto the lifeboat as it was moving away from the sinking ship.”

The Revolving Door

Teachers on emergency certifications as the industry shrunk in size following the bust of its unions became a common theme across Wisconsin. The shortage didn’t start with Act 10, but Kim Kaukl with the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance said the legislation greatly exacerbated it. In Adams-Friendship and in districts across Wisconsin, many were replaced with individuals using emergency or alternative certifications–with rural and low-income districts most affected.

“It really started to become a revolving door for many of our rural districts,” Kaukl noted. Under the free agency opened up by Act 10, teachers could more easily get a start in the industry in the lower-paying rural districts before migrating to cities and suburbs with better benefits and higher pay.

“A lot of our rural districts couldn’t compete in that free agency market,” Kaukl said.

Teacher turnover was most pronounced in the years following Act 10, starting to reach a more consistent level by 2018. The highest number of teachers left in the 2011-2012 school year, according to research from the Wisconsin Policy Forum. But while across the state the numbers have evened out, the report acknowledged that some evidence suggested gaps depending on geography, income and other factors.

Last year in Adams-Friendship, Wermuth said, was one of the first with a normal attrition rate–almost none. Overall, rural and low-income districts have been dealt the brunt of the teacher shortage problem, said Julie Underwood, Professor Emerita of the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. That particularly applies to specialized positions like special education, math, and other fields.

“The biggest burden is in our rural areas,” Underwood said. “In the northern part of the state, the southwestern part of the state, you see those districts struggling to hire to hire teachers to fill positions.”

State Spending Cuts

By the dollar and by the percentage of increase, budget cuts throughout the Gov. Scott Walker era to K12 education put Wisconsin from a national leader in education spending to behind the curve, trailing the majority of states in funding both by raw dollar and percent increase amounts.

“Since 2010, we’ve decreased state spending on K-12 in terms of percentage of the state budget, and we’ve decreased in actual dollars our state spends on K12,” Underwood explained. “On the increase side, we’ve increased the burden on local property taxpayers…and we’ve increased state spending on private schools to about $300M.”

Research from the Wisconsin Policy Forum found that Wisconsin ranked near dead last in the nation for increases in per-pupil spending from 2011 through 2018. At 49th, Wisconsin increased per-pupil spending by 4.3%, compared to an 18.9% average increase nationwide. Until 2011, Wisconsin had remained well above the national average, the research found.

Included in that 4.3% increase are taxpayers themselves electing to spend more on their schools to make up the difference, without which per-pupil spending would have lagged even more. Between 2008 and 2018, the Wisconsin Policy Forum research found that 189 school districts passed 387 referendum to raise school taxes.

Once again, it’s rural or other low-income districts that feel the difference, Underwood said.

“When the state reduces the amount they’re willing to spend, wealthy districts can increase their local property tax and they can continue to spend to meet students needs. But low property tax districts, districts that are poor or have lots of poor children in them, they can’t increase that spending.”