Gov. Scott Walker put major changes to Wisconsin’s education system on the table Tuesday as he introduced his proposal for the state budget to the state Legislature.
Reminiscent of his recent State of the State address, Walker’s speech outlined a few major policies included in his proposal as he showed off veterans, students and workers in the chamber as examples of past successes of his economic policies and what he hopes to improve.
As expected, Walker’s proposal included a $300 million funding cut over the next two years for the UW System, coupled with autonomy measures to give the System authority currently granted only to the state Legislature.
“For years, supporters of the University of Wisconsin system said freeing them of being directly under the state government bureaucracy would help reduce costs in multiple areas for the System,” Walker said. “This budget includes a bold proposal to provide new governance through an authority, similar to the one used for the UW Hospital and Clinics.”
Many lawmakers, including some of Walker’s own party, said they have concerns about what less state oversight of the UW System would mean for students.
“I have some concerns about just giving an open-ended ability to raise tuition,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said.
On the overall cut to the System’s budget, however, Republicans are more united.
“The UW budget … is $6.1 billion, this reduction is 2.5 percent of that,” State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said. “When you look at our number of state employees, 70,000 state employes, 35,000 of them come from the UW System. So if we’re going to look at belt-tightening, the UW System is obviously one of our number one areas where we can do that.”
UW System President Ray Cross said in a statement he approved of the autonomy measures in Walker’s proposal but added the accompanying budget cuts would be a challenge for the System and its schools.
State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said Walker’s cuts would “decapitate” the UW System.
The state’s education system will face other major changes should Walker’s budget be approved. While the state Legislature has been debating two versions of a “school accountability bill,” Walker co-opted some ideas from those discussions into his budget.
Walker’s budget would remove caps on school vouchers and repeal any requirement that schools use Common Core standards.
“Every parent deserves the ability to see objective and comparable data about their child's school,” Walker said. “Our budget includes the tools to provide that information to every parent for any school that receives public funds.”
Nygren, co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, proposed an aggressive timeline for passage of the budget at a press conference before Walker’s address, saying he hopes for executive action on the budget by April and for it to be finished by Memorial Day. Previous state budgets have typically been signed in June.
As students, legislators and journalists pore over the full 1,839-page proposal to determine what else is included, Vos promised a vibrant discussion in the state Legislature before it would approve a new version of the budget for Walker’s signature.
“There are going to be things we think are great and there are going to be things that we are going to be concerned about as this budget moves forward,” Vos said. “While we are strong supporters of Gov. Walker, this is his budget and we’ll have an opportunity to shape it according to what we think our priorities are over the next few months.”