This Fall, Wisconsin might be in for another round of debate on Act 10, the controversial collective bargaining reform passed in 2011 that sparked protests, counter-protests, recall elections, and even launched Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential campaign. Gov. Walker, champion of Act 10, is running for a third term. His opponent, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, is a critic of the law who signed the recall petition, protested at the capitol, and has used the law as a cudgel in debates over education policy and spending.
Despite the passage of time, Act 10 remains a subject of intense feeling and interest. And despite enormous savings and innovation in local government, polls since 2012 suggest support for Act 10 has slipped, peaking in 2014 at 52 percent before falling to 46 percent in 2018.
This could be due to how the media has covered Act 10 as well as the spin from the law’s opponents. WILL’s latest study, Silent Successes, shows how, over seven years, the tone of the media coverage has been overwhelmingly negative. In fact, only two percent of stories about Act 10 have been positive. With such overwhelmingly one-sided media coverage, it is little wonder that popular support for Act 10 has been waning.
Yet, positive stories of Act 10 do exist and are happening on a regular basis in the classroom of public schools. Building upon a previous WILL report, Silent Successes examined contracts between Wisconsin school districts and their unions to determine how superintendents are using Act 10 reforms. Open records requests to all 422 school districts for contracts between the school district and their teacher unions from 2008 to 2018 resulted in documents from over 85 percent of Wisconsin school districts. A review found that districts all over Wisconsin are using Act 10 reforms in important ways.
Before Act 10, school districts were forced to use pay schedules based on education level and seniority. Due to collective bargaining agreements, schools could not pay their teachers or reduce their staff based on what their school needed, but were subject to ‘last hired, first fired.’ For teachers, compensation wasn’t determined by classroom performance.
Since Act 10, schools have been given the tools, often found the private sector, to innovate. There are offering more competitive benefits, have instituted merit pay, and can retain teachers who are better suited for the school as well as curriculum and student needs.
Wisconsin districts have largely implemented two different systems of merit pay: Merit pay at the discretion of the school board, and merit pay based on performance evaluations. Both systems accomplish the same end— they incentivize the teacher pay system.
Merit pay at the discretion of the school board allows districts to pay a teacher more for exceptional work. Elmwood School District, Mondovi School District, Monona Grove School District, Southern Door County School District, Swallow Elementary, and Oconomowoc School District all included a clause in their teacher contracts that says their respective “Board” reserves the right to pay above the pay schedule for “meritorious” service. In the performance evaluation model, teachers who score higher in evaluations, whose students perform better on tests or get better grades, and teachers who put more time and effort into their school and duties earn more, like at Cedarburg or Brillion School District. Either way, teachers who do more earn more.
Additionally, Act 10 allows school districts to tailor their staff to the school’s needs. Before Act 10, even exceptional teachers were laid off due to the union enforced “last hired, first fired” rule that favored seniority over what was best for the school. After the law, districts can now consider performance and a school’s needs over seniority.
These are important stories even if they never garner big headlines. The public deserves to know how Act 10 is working in their community. In every corner of the Badger State, Act 10 is not just working for taxpayers, but also for teachers and school districts. A return to status quo ante would be costly, disruptive, and counterproductive.
Lauren Tunney is with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.