It just isn’t a waterbed if there isn’t any water in it

Recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been touting his balanced budget and the surplus money he put into a rainy day fund. I have a hard time celebrating this news as the Janesville school district continues to face dire economic issues …. rainy day fund or no rainy day fund.

Have we gone too far with these hatchet-style budget cuts?  Have we passed a tipping point?  Wisconsin’s Superintendent asks more for schools that are in need, while our Governor is promising to deliver less. Can we work with less? Can we deliver what our communities and children deserve with what we are being given?

I had an economics class in college, way back when. My professor used a waterbed analogy that I am reminded of often. Granted, I went to UW-Madison in the 80’s and a waterbed analogy may be hard to explain to today’s youth, but I think our adult readers will know what I mean. His point at the time was simple: Things cost what they cost. If you push down in one area of the bed, it will just force another area of the bed to rise. If, instead, you let out the water, it will stop being a bed.

Gov. Walker and his supporters are underfunding education (pushing down one side of the waterbed) to balance the state budget. School districts are being given less money by the state even as education costs rise. This is a budget-balancing trick that really pushes the cost on to someone else.

School districts are making up the difference by raising taxes locally or going to referendums to raise the money. These are school districts that want to continue to have a functioning school district. Districts are also using federal grant money to temporarily fill positions.  Again, these are all waterbed techniques that only mask the fact that the price has not changed, just the process of getting the funds.

Some school districts have decided to allow the water out of the bed. They have cut positions deemed unnecessary or redundant. They claim that teachers are being paid too much and take away from their salaries in the form of benefits payments. Higher teacher-to-student ratios, increased scheduling, and larger class loads are all being played with–not for the betterment of public education–but to meet the new budget restrictions.

I have hoped that Wisconsin school boards, seeing the damage being done to our public education system, would speak up. Drunk with the possibilities of a restriction-free mandate to push moral reforms, dress codes, more testing, teacher accountability, and the firing of educators deemed old and lazy (read experienced and expensive), district leaders have allowed these radical funding changes to happen. Now they are left with the realization that their options are not all that attractive.

You can only let so much water out the waterbed before it stops being a bed.

This blog was written by Bill Conway, world traveler and an acclaimed  social studies teacher from Janesville. It makes an excellent point.

Post By Tom Beebe (26 Posts)

The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools is a campaign of the the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future. The purpose of the network is to work toward the day when all of the state's schools have the resources they need to give every child in the state the opportunities they need to learn in school and succeed in life. IWF is a 501 c(3) non-profit, non-partisan statewide public policy research and community outreach organization dedicated to state policies that benefit middle and low income families. Our mission is rooted in the belief that an educated, engaged citizenry is key to improving individual outcomes. Tom Beebe is the OTL-Wisconsin network coordinator and directs IWF's school-funding reform effort.

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