Scooter & Schools: A Primer on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Education Policies


The Sunday political magazine shows (Meet the Press, Face the Nation, etc.) would have us believe that the 2016 presidential race is just around the corner. While no viable major party candidates have declared yet, the field of potential Republican and Democratic nominees is certainly taking shape.  In the months to come, I hope to review candidates’ records and statements on education policy. And what better place to start than with my home state’s dunce, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R)!

Oops, I let that zinger slip. My bad. I will try to remain as even-keeled as possible in this series of posts, which will be a challenge for me when discussing our friend Scooter, the hard-working, tax-paying, college degree-lacking executive of America’s Dairyland. I am astonished that he is being considered a front runner for the Republican nomination. I’ll admit from the start that I believe Governor Walker is a mercenary for the monied interests of the new right wing and rarely acts in the best interests of the citizens and public institutions of Wisconsin….which is kind of his job, so….yeah….

Anyways, below is an examination of the major pieces of legislation Walker has supported or passed, as well as public statements he has made, about education since becoming Wisconsin’s governor in 2011:

Act 10 (March 2011)

After weeks of workers’  protests & political turmoil, the state legislature and Governor Walker passed the state budget repair bill to address a projected $137 million budget gap for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year and a $2+ billion shortfall for the following biennium. Included in the bill was an increase in state worker contributions for pension and health benefits and the near elimination of collective bargaining rights for most state employee unions, including teachers and University of Wisconsin workers unions.

My take: This is by far the most high profile education policy-related law passed under Walker and many before me have documented the dubious process and detrimental effects of the passage of the budget repair bill, so I’ll keep it brief. By passing the budget repair bill with the above union-related provisions, Walker and the state legislature effectively removed two of the best incentives for entering and remaining in the teaching profession: increased job security & robust pension plans. The severe restriction on collective bargaining rights for teachers unions and requirement for educators to contribute more to their benefits packages will make it much more difficult for Wisconsin schools to recruit the brightest & best undergraduate students, retain passionate & skilled teachers, and professionally develop effective & experienced educators.

Senate Bill 95 (October 2011)

SB 95 authorized school boards to use standardized test scores as a reason to discharge, suspend, or formally discipline a teacher or to fail to renew a teacher’s contract, whereas existing law prohibited the use of such test scores during evaluations of teacher performance.

My take: This bill was designed to create a teacher accountability system tied to unreliable metrics for learning and pave the way for merit-based pay. Another Walker-sponsored law that shows antagonism towards and a mistrust of teachers. In my opinion, standardized test scores can (and should) play a important role in conversations about educational equity, curricular planning, and teacher professional development. However, perverse incentives to serve some students (over others!) can emerge when tests are used as a central component of teacher evaluations.

UW Flexible Degree Program (2012)

Governor Walker and the UW System announces plans to offer a flexible, competency-based degree program in which students may take online courses and earn academic credit for outside-of-class experience in several specific fields after passing an exam.

My take: I’m very cautiously optimistic about this policy. I’m happy that UW decided to create its own system and program for competency-based degrees rather than contracting with Western Governor’s University as many other states have done. I work at a high school in which all students participate in internships during 11th & 12th grade, so I have seen the benefits of linked learning. The flexible degree program isn’t exactly linked learning, but it promotes the idea of outside-of-the-classroom and technology-centric learning, both of which I strongly support. I also like the idea of Wisconsin experimenting with methods to address the cost disease of higher education.  However, the rigor of the competency tests and the strength of the connection between academic and occupational learning remain big question marks. I also doubt that Walker has the best interests of the UW System at heart. His legislative record indicates he saw this policy primarily as a way to save money for the state to spend on other things.

Act 20 (2013)

The 2013 state budget bill passes and is signed by Governor Walker for fiscal years 2013-2015 and includes a provision to expand the statewide school voucher program by providing income tax deductions for private school tuition of up to $4,000 (elementary) or $10,000 (secondary) per student per year.

My take: Income tax credits or deductions for private school tuition redistributes revenue from public schools to upper-middle and upper class families. Wisconsin public schools serve the vast majority of the state’s low-income, special education, handicapped, and ethnic minority students, employ the most experienced and expert teachers, and feature the most innovative teaching practices. Act 20 is a win for those in favor of privatizing public education and a loss for those who believe in K-12 education as a public good or schools as mechanisms for promoting equity. A 2014 report found that over 70% of families receiving vouchers already sent their children to private schools, which lends credence to the argument that Walker’s expansion of school voucher programs in Wisconsin is more of an economic policy that benefits the affluent than it is an education reform designed to address the opportunity gap for historically underserved students.

Call to Repeal Common Core State Standards (July 2014)

Following the lead of many other Republican governors across the country, Walker calls for the state legislature to repeal Common Core math and language arts standards and proposes to replace them with standards created by Wisconsinites.

My take: Walker’s views on Common Core are perfectly aligned with nearly every other Republican leader backed by a legislative majority. This is not an original thought or idea – he is simply towing the party line. I believe the higher level thinking and skills which Common Core promotes (and the tests are designed to assess) are a step in the right direction and could influence classroom teaching & learning in a positive way eventually. It will take time, though. I also like the idea of having similar standards across the country because it will inform conversations and planning around educational equity and opportunity. However, I do not like the idea of tying Common Core (or any other) test results to district/school funding or teacher evaluations in a punitive way.

Alternative Teacher Licensing Proposal (January 2015)

Governor Walker advocates for an alternative teacher licensing program in which aspiring educators could skip traditional certification programs as long as they attain a bachelor’s degree, accumulate “life experience” in the content area, and pass a test. No student teaching necessary.

My take: I’m interested in proposals to rethink teacher education and preparation programs, but Walker’s idea totally neglects pedagogical knowledge and overrates content area knowledge. This is the newest iteration of Walker’s signature move: de-professionalizing the teaching profession. If this proposal were to pass, he still would not be able to be a classroom teacher in Wisconsin due to his lack of a bachelor’s degree.

Proposed Budget Cuts to University of Wisconsin System (January 2015)

Walker framed the $300 million decrease in funding for the UW system as a way to promote more efficient state government and offered increased autonomy for the Board of Regents to create systemwide policy as a benefit of the proposal.

My take: The cuts come at a time when many other states are investing more in higher education. This will surely lead to a steep tuition increase for UW students across campuses. It is an extremely short sighted idea and, unfortunately, is further proof that Walker does not value education as a worthwhile investment for a democratic society.

My Cup is Overflowing



My mother called me on the phone the morning before Thanksgiving.

“Shawn, Grandpa died this morning.” My Grandpa Tom in Wausau.

I was home for the holidays but had spent the night at Erica’s house on the west side of Madison. We had spent the previous evening talking, eating cookies, playing pool, and laughing a lot at a friend’s log cabin out in the country. Meanwhile, my grandfather was spending his last night on earth in a hospital bed in northern Wisconsin, his wife of 63 years by his side, in his 85th year, giving up the ghost in his singularly good-humored and gentle way.

We drove north that afternoon, Erica, my uncle, and I. We talked a little bit about life & death and Grandpa. At dusk, we arrived at the house on Skyline. No one was home – the siblings and Grandma were still at the funeral home making arrangements. We kept the engine running the cold November frost, eventually pulling out of the driveway to meet the family at a Chinese buffet. We waited, hugged, ate, and spoke little of Grandpa’s passing. A pall in everyone’s step and eyes told it.

Thanksgiving was strangely comforting, even jubilant. With 20 of us in the house, we didn’t all fit at the long table in the sun room looking across to Rib Mountain. We sang “Back of the Bread” for grace – one of Grandpa’s favorites. Turkey & fixings that tasted more rich than ever, lots of good football, and plenty of card games made for a homey afternoon.

For the next four days, we prepared for the wake and funeral. The hours passed and I was not thinking much of anything beyond those present moments with my aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, brother, wife and Grandma. I remember drifting from person to person, asking to help with anything that needed tending to: sorting clothes, retrieving items for the displays showing Grandpa’s interests, playing with the younger kids. It’s all a sort of bittersweet blur of a long winter’s weekend now.

The funeral service was on Sunday afternoon, with a visitation an hour before. I had tried to avoid visiting the casket at the wake the day before, but ultimately brought my mother forward to it near the end of the evening so she could, “say goodbye to my Dad.” I’m not sure why I acted like this – perhaps I wanted to avoid saying goodbye, maybe it was the utterly uncomfortable feeling of seeing the body of a man who was so vibrant and witty during his life lie motionless in an eternal bed, make up caked onto his face along with a cold, straight grin he never would’ve worn. A body is just a vessel for the spirit & the soul, and to see his existence to reduced to a corpse for people to visit seemed a crude symbology in which I didn’t want to fully partake. Nonetheless, I visited the casket alongside my cousin at the visitation. I cried then. Seeing others cry made me feel my grandfather’s absence.

I had a heavy and hard time until the beginning of the funeral. I served as pallbearer with some of the other men in the family. The service was meticulously planned by Grandpa and included four hymns, three readings, a family remembrance, a version of a creed he wrote himself, and a military farewell featuring a firing squad and “Taps” to conclude. My eldest uncle led the family remembrance, ending with the lines, “I always looked up to my father, and I can still do that today & forever more. Hey, Dad!,” his hands and face rising to the sky.

Another uncle and a trio of cousins performed Grandpa’s hymn “My Cup is Overflowing” during the service and it has been stuck in my head all day. I’ve only realized the significance of this metaphor in the last few hours as I returned to Oakland and went to my school. When you are so blessed to be around caring people you can call companions, to have a loving family, to be in good health, to be living & breathing in this magical world the gods have given us, how can you not be overcome with joy and thanks? Your cup overflows with these blessings, life is beyond good: it is blissful, with an infinite number of possibilities for the present and future. So treat others with kindness and be a generous listener, for that is the pinnacle of earthly existence; to share moments of beauty and curiosity with others and to appreciate it all the while. I used this frame all afternoon, speaking with students and colleagues, each and every interaction. By practicing patience, being open, sharing my thoughts, doing simple deeds, and listening to others, I felt a tremendous happiness and gratefulness. Thank you for teaching this to me, Grandpa.

As I continue to reflect on Grandpa’s teachings to me over the years and emotionally process his flight from us, I continue to return to the question of how to honor one’s memory. There are simple ways, like putting his picture in a place in our apartment or meditating with him in mind & spirit. But I feel the most meaningful way for me to honor my Grandpa Tom will be to ponder his father & presence, continue to apply his teachings & learn from his example. That doesn’t mean duplicating all of his life choices, though I always admired his well-rounded, renaissance-man nature and hope to continue to develop myself in that direction. I think it means to remember his commitment to family, to kindness for others, to intellectual self-improvement, and to humor; a hug a day, a smile every ten minutes, plenty of reading & writing, and lots of jokes. I will keep him with me by leading a life with these the tenets in mind. In doing so, he will live on with us, in spirit & smile, forever. Love you and miss you, Grandpa Tom.