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Walker’s plan for UW budget leaves some ‘delighted,’ others remain critical

Gov. Scott Walker’s announcement of his plan for the UW System budget Tuesday sparked both praise and criticism.

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While some cheered Walker’s funding proposal for the UW System Tuesday as a means of reinvigorating UW following a $250 million cut in the 2015-’17 biennium budget, others expressed skepticism and even outright dismay at some of the smaller pieces the plan.

The proposal includes a pledge of an additional $140 million in funding and a 5 percent cut to in-state tuition at each of Wisconsin’s 16 public universities.

UW System President Ray Cross said in a statement that the plan shows the state and the system were aligned on many issues.

“The UW System provides a great return on investment, and we appreciate the recognition of the role the UW System plays in Wisconsin’s economy and workforce,” Cross said in the statement. “The Governor’s proposed budget reflects many of the priorities outlined in 2020FWD, and we look forward to working with the Governor and the legislature in the months ahead.”

Walker will unveil his budget in full tomorrow and the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee will review his proposal and hear from state agencies in the coming months.

Questions persist about performance-based funding

Neither Cross, nor UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, addressed Walker’s proposal tying $42.5 million in funding to performance metrics. That performance-based funding would dole out money based on each UW System school’s performance in a variety of factors, including “improving affordability and attainability,” “enhancing work readiness,” and “ensuring student success in the workforce.”

Both Cross and Blank have expressed skepticism about the plan, saying the consequences are uncertain, but both said they were open to the plan depending on its design.

While Walker didn’t detail the exact metrics to be used or how money would be allocated, the proposal appears to give the Board of Regents some say in how the metrics would be chosen and applied.

State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said she hadn’t seen evidence that a move to performance-based funding would improve quality.

“Research shows it doesn’t work … it’s totally unnecessary,” Taylor said. “There are already reports that the system prepares for the state to ensure accountability. It doesn't inspire changes and it isn’t the best targeted investment.”

UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow said that his campus would be well positioned for success under some of the proposed metrics but said others, including tabulating how many students remain in Wisconsin after graduation, remained unclear.

“I respect that the taxpayers and the legislature want to invest in the future of the state,” Gow said. “But I believe we educate people to compete anywhere in the world.”

Tuition cut receives praise, but fate is unclear

Another key piece to Walker’s plan is a 5 percent cut to in-state tuition at all UW System schools for in-state students. The reduction would save a UW-Madison student from Wisconsin roughly $524 a year on tuition.

Under the plan, tuition would remain frozen for the 2017-’18 school year before the cut would take effect in the 2018 school year.

Walker announced the cut in his State of the State Address last month and said it would be a way to increase college affordability.

“Governor Walker is committed to lowering the cost of college for students at our UW campuses,” Walker spokesperson Tom Evenson said at the time of the address. “This isn’t just talk. The governor plans to actually lower the cost of college by cutting tuition across the UW System.”

Gow said he was encouraged that the governor was planning on funding the tuition cut, saying this would provide more resources for individual schools.

“I’m delighted to see the governor wants to cut tuition for our students and put back in the money the cut will take out,” Gow said, noting this accompanied an overall increase in funding for the UW System.

Gow said the proposal, which Walker unveiled at the western Wisconsin campus Tuesday, was the first in his tenure as chancellor that provided an increase in funding for the system.

However, the tuition cut has an uncertain fate in the state Legislature. Many top Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have said they would prefer the money funding the cut to instead be used to bolster need-based student aid.

"If we have extra money, while I'm open to the governor's idea and want to see the exact language, I would rather put the money in financial aid to help students who are going to leave with a lot of debt," Vos said last month. "Just cutting tuition across the board means you are going to give the same assistance to somebody who could write a check without even blinking."

Democrats have also said they would prefer the money go toward supporting financial aid. Taylor said she opposes giving “a hand out” to wealthier families who can already afford to send their children to college.

“Rather than an across the board cut, I’d rather see it targeted to need-based grants,” Taylor said. “Why give someone who does not need it a cut? It’s not a good use of taxpayer money.”

It is unclear if any additional money would go to the Wisconsin Grant funded by the Higher Education Aids Board or to individual universities. But Taylor said financial aid is a better way to address the issue of college affordability.

“It is a smarter way to do this, a smarter more efficient way to address need,” Taylor said.

Proposals draw student, faculty ire

Walker’s plan was not without controversy, however, with two components of it drawing criticism from some students and faculty.

One of those pieces is a plan which would allow students to opt out of part of the segregated fees they pay each semester. Walker’s proposal would only cover allocable fees, which account for roughly $90 out of the total $607 in fees students pay each semester, and help fund certain clubs and services for students.

Proponents of Walker’s plan argue students would not be forced to subsidize organizations on campus they find morally or ideologically objectionable.

“[Walker’s] seg fee opt-out allows students the freedom to decide for themselves if they want to fund a select few student orgs or not,” Alex Walker, former chair of College Republicans at UW-Madison, tweeted Tuesday.

But some members of student government think the state is going too far.

“This is the best example of big government overreach, trying to take control of our allocable fees,” Colin Barushok, chair of the student government committee in charge of allocating UW-Madison student segregated fees, said. “They don’t have any business telling students they can opt-out of these fees, especially considering these fees are allocated by elected student officials.”

A second part of the proposal that has met resistance is a plan requiring faculty and staff to report the number of hours they spend teaching classes. Those statistics will then be compiled in a UW System report and would be made public as part of a yearly accountability report. Faculty who spend above-average time teaching would also be rewarded for their efforts.

Walker has maintained in the past that faculty teaching more classes is a potential way to mitigate budget cuts.

“They might be able to make savings just by asking faculty and staff to consider teaching one more class per semester,” Walker said in 2015. “Things like that could have a tremendous impact on making sure that we preserve an affordable education for all of our UW campuses, and at the same time we maintain a high-quality education.”

David Vanness, an associate professor of population health sciences, said he was in favor of recognizing those who have heavy teaching loads.

“Some staff with higher course loads need to be given compensation,” Vanness said.

But he also said that focusing solely on teaching hours misses other aspects of the job.

“There are a lot of things that faculty do for their students … classroom time is just one part of what we do,” Vanness said. “We mentor students, we spend time advising students, we write them letters of recommendations and we connect them with research opportunities outside the university. All these things we engage in that aren’t counted in classroom time.”

Walker provided no details on what the reporting system would look like but Vanness said that any increased focus on teaching time could have unintended consequences later.

“If you’re going to encourage people to teach more classes, something is going to have to give,” he said. “And if that’s quality … it is unclear who is benefiting.”

Peter Coutu contributed to this report.

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