That Governor Scott Walker chose to fire the first shot in Wisconsin’s budget battle at teachers unions should not come as a surprise to those familiar with the popular conservative, or the tea party. Both hold the conviction that the relationship between public education spending and education quality is dubious at best.
Teachers unions have long been the target of conservative ire, being blamed for protecting obsolescent teachers, absorbing too much state funding, and more. With the rise of the ideologically zealous tea party baptized GOP class of 2011, the attack on education unions should come as no surprise. And of course there is that winner take all detail: police and firefighter unions supported Walker, while Wisconsin teachers unions spent $200 million opposing him.
While Walker battles unions and seeks to balance the budget, the greater question is one of vision. What do Wisconsinites want from their government? Wisconsin boasts one of the best education systems in the union, both for secondary education and higher education. While forcing teachers to double their healthcare contributions and increase their pension contributions – a pay cut of about 8% – won’t degrade the quality of education in the state, Wisconsin Republicans had better realize that they now own the quality of Wisconsin education, and letting it deteriorate would lead to enduring negative consequences not only for Republican lawmakers, but for Wisconsin residents.
One state to the west, former Governor Tim Pawlenty dealt with big deficits in another way. He did not hesitate to cut spending on a slew of state programs, including politically sensitive ones like food and healthcare subsidies for the poor. However, he always protected two things, security and education. While he prioritized what was most important to the state, he also used innovation to bring down costs in other areas like state employee health plans, while not sacrificing quality. He was also an early proponent of merit based pay for teachers, in an effort to improve the already high quality of education in Minnesota. While Pawlenty earned the wrath of Minnesota’s liberals, his legacy is not that of a reckless budget slasher who cut for the sake of cutting. The crucial detail of his legacy is that he coupled tough fiscal conservatism with an innovative vision. The takeaway here is that Pawlenty, and other conservative innovators like Mitch Daniels, have grafted market innovations into government policies to improve the situation of their citizens; they have not simply hacked at budgets to get the government out of people’s lives.
For Walker and Wisconsin’s tea party class, the biggest battle will not be the current clash with teachers unions. The crucial point will come with Walker’s next move. “Where are you taking us?” will ask Wisconsin residents. Let’s hope he has an answer.