Thursday, February 17, 2011

Madison In An Uproar (And My Solution)

I came home this afternoon having taken a mandatory course in CPR from my employer, only to find once I'd gotten home that it was our State government which had a cardiac arrest!

Apparently, disgusted that Walker is trying to balance a budget and break a union at the same time, all the Democrats in Madison decided that the only way to prevent a disaster was to make a run south of the border -- the Illinois state border, in this case.

What a circus! I haven't seen people this pissed off since the vote on the Miller Park too-small-to-even-notice-it sales tax hike. You might remember, the one that got Racine state congressman George Pitak tossed out on his ass in an impeachment recall? Anyway, nowlots of those Racine people are wearing Brewer shirts and lining up for tickets, but this item, the one that really matters, is on the current docket. And it's a confusing mess! The more I watch the news, the more I listen to the pundits, the more confused I get. I hear bitching and moaning on both sides, and when it's over, I'm no closer to learning the true substance of this debate than I was when I started. Shit, that's frustrating! I'm sure all of you out there are in the same situation.

But it occurred to me that this fight pertains directly to me. After all, I'm trying to become a science teacher, and that achieved goal is right around the corner. It just might be that I'll have fought so hard to direct a classroom, only to find that Gov. Walker yanked my paycheck away before I've even gotten there. As such, I thought I'd really research this one fully so that I know for damned sure whose side I should take on this one.

And, just to be generous, I thought I'd share what I discovered with you. But this is a multi-faceted debate, with lots of twists and turns. So forgive me if this blog takes a bit longer than my usual rants.

Since Republicans are insisting that this needs to be done because of a 137 million dollar shortfall. I started by trying to read Wisconsin's financial position reports. This 2011 budget deficit was one very unspecified bastard, because it was first reported to be 2.2 billion, then changed to 3.3 billion, then went mysteriously down to 530 million (that's million, with an "m", or half a billion), and is currently quoted at 137 million. What's going on here? And if Walker has done so nicely shrinking the budget already, why go after public salaries now? So, I went to the Wisconsin government website to get some budgetary answers. I wanted to know exact revenues vs. exact outlays for fiscal years 2009, 2010, and projections for 2011.

You know what? I couldn't find them! The URL of the website (for financial statements CAFR) is missing from the government web site! Now that's fucking interesting, isn't it? At this exact moment, when we need those numbers the most, they're removed. Gee, is someone in Madison trying to prevent someone coming up with an obviously alternate means of saving $137 million? Hmmmmm?

So, I read the Budget Repair Proposal, which is the source of all this commotion.

The bill deals with MERA, the Municipal Employment Relations Act, and SELRA, the State Employment Labor Relations Act. These previously enacted bills allow for collective bargaining with the state regarding pay and benefits. What this new bill of Walker's proposes about these prior arrangements is two things: One, that they'll be changed so that only collective bargaining for base wages is allowed. No negotiating changes to benefits. And two, that wages can only be bargained upwards to a maximum based upon a percentage increase of the consumer price index. In other words, no increasing wages faster than inflation or buying power.

Essentially, this renders the unions toothless. They can only bargain for what they'd likely get anyway. Does this break the unions? Essentially, yes. The unions themselves would still exist, for a little longer, anyway. But since they have no real power to increase wages or benefits, they'd wither away and die. After all, who wants to pay dues for nothing? Hence, the outrage.

Interestingly, police and firefighters are ruled out. That's not what the bill actually says, however. It says "public safety employees" are exempt. Wonder why it might be phrased that way? Oh, wait, maybe it's because a member of the National Guard might be considered "public safety!" After all, can't have a Guardsman called upon to defend a bill that will cut his salary and benefits, now can we? (Probably only some of said guardsman's salary comes from state sources, but still... interesting.)

So, with police, fire, and any state funds to guard members ruled out, the primary victim... er, I mean, subject, of the bill, is teachers. Mostly public school teachers, but also Tech schools and the UW system.

I get the issues at stake, here. We want a balanced budget. We also want to cut out the fat. And public schools and state-subsidized colleges are a nice, juicy target. After all, in Milwaukee Public Schools, for instance, enrollment has declined while the budget has increased for each and every year since 2001, causing a net increase in spending of about 50% per student, ending at over $16,000 spent on every student in MPS in 2010. Meanwhile, teacher salaries at MPS average at over $52,000 per year, while benefits weigh in at $49,000 per year, for a total compensation package of $101,000 annually, per teacher. And for this money spent? We get failing students, incompetent in math, reading and science. Clearly, throwing money at schools is not solving the problem.

So, here comes Walker, ready to bust the union and save the schools, right? Well, no. The union is a problem because it retains bad teachers and fails to adequately reward good ones, this is true. But the fundamental problem is deeper. After all, wouldn't you think for $52K per year and huge benefits, plus summers off, would be a perfect gig? I mean, you'd think people would be lining up outside the MPS offices for work, wouldn't you?

But, no. In fact, most people would rather eat broken glass than work for MPS. New teacher turnover at MPS is something like 15%! In spite of the sweet deal! Now why is that?

Well, we know the usual culprits: Drugs on the streets, parents who don't give a damn until the kid is killed in a gang-crossfire and then, when the camera comes on, the weeping, overweight mother cries and bawls, "He was such a good kid!" (Puh-LEEZE!) But there's an even deeper cause. It's the most evil, most pernicious, and most wasteful pisser-away of taxpayer money piece of bullshit ever invented. It's called:

Residency Requirement!

In a nutshell, it means this: If you want to work for MPS, you have to live in Milwaukee. After all, you can't have people working to educate the city's children and not be willing to live there, right? That wouldn't be fair!

Yeah, except for the part where your pool of potential teachers gets severely limited as a result. Then, it's simply supply and demand. Low supply of teachers plus high demand for them means really big salaries get forced onto the state! Bad teachers get to stick around, because they're less fireable than a pedophile Catholic priest. Good teachers can't stand the crap that gets heaped upon them from the bad teachers, compounded with the lack of parental support, get frustrated, and leave. And this system of rewarding teachers whose only skill is being able to show up and keep the kids from killing each other for eight hours a day gets stronger and stronger.

Shit, there are outstanding potential teachers in West Allis, Tosa, Greenfield and, heaven forbid, Whitefish Bay! We can tap into that great resource and improve test scores overnight! Besides, have you taken a look at a Milwaukee map? The city border is a joke! If a teacher lives in West Milwaukee, and thus lives right near the inner city, he can't get a job at MPS. But if someone lives up near Butler, or the sliver of Milwaukee territory located Northeast of Alverno College, then he can always get a job, even though he doesn't have any inner city issues. What a crock!

So, end the residency rule, and what happens? Why, suddenly, the supply of teachers is high, and the demand for teachers is low. Wages come down, and the state of Wisconsin saves at least 137 million, maybe lots more! Schools are stocked full of quality teachers who work collectively to pester slovenly parents, and education actually happens!

Now doesn't that make a whole lot more sense?

You know, they say that the problem is that kids can't do math. But I rather think it's the adults who can't do math instead. More money isn't the solution. But then, money was never the problem. The structure of the system was the problem! And unless that's fixed, then cutting teacher salaries is going to make our schools WAY worse!

Oh, and incidentally, the big benefits package I mentioned earlier is so very large because of a program which pays back tuition to those people who become teachers. This encourages people, specifically people like me, to complete a degree in math or science and enter a teaching career in mid-life. Of course, if that gets taken away, then Walker's pretty much sodomized me with a splintered broom-handle, financially speaking! Still, it's about what's best for everyone, and it's not just about me.

I have way more thoughts on this. Like dozens of ideas to save money in the UW system, for example. Or why MATC is really worth the money, in spite of past corruption and the recent bargaining agreement which was sped through to head-off Walker's bill at the pass. I'd like to mention how a teacher leaving school to protest is fine for a day but wrong for a week. I'd even like to say how I support school choice vouchers so long as the religious schools are left out of it. But I think I've made my case. All those other speeches can wait. If Walker really wants to break the Milwaukee Teachers Union, he can simply give MPS over to Tom Barrett, which is yet entirely possible.

In the meantime, I side with Labor. Walker's an idiot!

Eric

1 comment:

SaganJr said...

Addendum to my blog, Rachel Maddow reports that the financial statements I couldn't find on the Wisconsin Government's web site show a budgetary surplus rather than a deficit. If this is right, the crux of the conservative argument for this falls.