In the wake of six straight months of job losses, Republican Gov. Scott Walker put a priority on training workers to fill existing jobs in his Jan. 25, 2012, state of the state speech.
Two weeks earlier, Walker had announced a new council to brainstorm ways to get students better prepared for jobs.
Not surprisingly, Democrats weren’t buying what Walker was selling.
In the weekly Democratic Party radio address released Feb. 1, 2012, state Rep. Fred Clark of Baraboo pointed to the lackluster jobs numbers and criticized Walker’s policies on education. He said students are "already experiencing the effects of Governor Walker’s damaging cuts to our universities and our technical colleges."
Clark continued: "Governor Walker’s talk about job training rings very hollow after he made more than $70 million in cuts to job training programs through our technical colleges."
We’ve heard plenty about Walker’s budget as it relates to public schools and the state university system, but little about the state’s technical college system, which quietly serves 375,000 students.
Did Walker cut technical college job training programs by $70 million?
Walker’s budget, approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature, did cut more than $70 million from general state aid to the technical college system. Precisely, it was $35.8 million each year for two years, or $71.6 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
After years of steady state funding, Walker’s plan amounted to a 30 percent reduction in state aid over two years. The reduction put the state aid at 1989 levels, according to tech college officials. The state budget also froze for two years the amount colleges could levy in property taxes for their budgets. That added to the budget challenge for administrators.
But there are some key additional facts to put this into context.
The state money is only about 12 percent of the revenue base for the colleges. Property taxes provide two-thirds of their budgets, and tuition and fees about one-fifth. So, it was a 30 percent cut of that narrow portion of their overall budget.
And there is another set of numbers, unmentioned by Clark, that is important here.
Most of the officials we spoke with acknowledged that another Walker budget move -- the collective bargaining changes that resulted in greater public employee contributions to state-paid health insurance and pensions -- had partially offset the aid cuts.
Statewide, across the colleges, an estimated 60 percent of the aid cut was offset by those cost-cutting moves, according to Morna Foy, vice president of policy and government relations for the Wisconsin Technical College System. She noted the impact varied widely depending on the timing of labor contracts and other factors.
So the impact of the $70 million aid cut was significantly offset.
Additionally, Clark described the budget move as "more than $70 million in cuts to job training programs."
The tech system’s primary mission is largely "job training" through specialized coursework. But that’s not all those schools do. They also provide general education, career counseling and skills training for already employed workers, among other services. So it’s impossible to say the $70 million all came from job training programs.
Because nobody has catalogued the college-by-college impact of the aid cuts, we can’t rule on whether the state aid cuts have damaged tech college education, as Clark said.
But our interviews with a sample of the 16 technical college districts found a modest but significant list of program cutbacks officials attributed to the state aid cut:
Northeast Wisconsin Technical College lost about 5 percent of its workforce, including eight instructors, made some class sizes bigger and cut back on counseling for students and extra help for students who struggle, said Karen Smits, vice president of college advancement.
Waukesha County Technical College discontinued two course programs, said Kaylen Betzig, executive vice president.
Milwaukee Area Technical College consolidated a majority of classes at its downtown campus, according to Kathleen Hohl, spokeswoman for the college.
Officials with the state tech system officials found that closing class sections and reducing the number of instructors was a common budget-balancing tactic, as was dipping into reserve funds, said Foy.
Several officials mentioned waiting lists to get into programs such as nursing, and said the cuts have thwarted plans to try to get more students into class. In tough economic times, demand for tech classes rises, officials said. They also said Walker’s budget spurred extraordinary numbers of retirements, causing the loss of experienced teachers.
But officials said the overall impact on classrooms was pretty modest or negligible.
"Students were able to get the experience in classroom we have always offered," Smits said, emphasizing that outside the classroom, the guidance cuts did mean less service.
Clark correctly quantified Walker’s budget as having made more than $70 million in cuts to the technical college system. But it was a cut in general aid, not specifically to job training programs. And some of the cut was significantly offset by other changes in the budget, as was evident when officials told us the impact of the cuts was relatively modest.
We rate Clark’s statement Half True.