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By Dave Umhoefer February 19, 2012

Recall candidate Kathleen Falk says Governor Scott Walker enacted "the biggest cuts to education in our state's history"

Democrats searching for the right combination of punches to drive Scott Walker from office have focused on joblessness, schools, tax fairness and leadership style.

One of the jabs they throw repeatedly centers on cuts Walker’s 2011-’13 budget made in state aid to local school districts.

Kathleen Falk, the best-known Democrat so far in the likely 2012 gubernatorial recall election, tried to land a roundhouse right as she became the first announced candidate.

The former Dane County executive told a Feb. 8, 2012 audience in La Crosse that Walker has "divided us instead of united us."

"He's done it with the wrong choices," Falk said, according to a WXOW-TV online story. "He gave big tax breaks for a few and then made the biggest cuts to education in our state's history."

The state’s history covers a long time.

Are Walker’s cuts truly the largest ever?

We have already looked at several statements about Walker’s education budget.

We gave state Rep. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, a Mostly False for saying Walker’s property tax freeze would cost schools $1.6 billion in revenue. It was about half that, according to the most common accounting.

We labeled Mostly False a claim from Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller that Wisconsin "enacted the most drastic cuts to K-12 public schools of any state in the nation." At the time, the study he cited looked at only 24 states, not all 50.

Now we have Falk’s claim.

It is bold, but it actually is narrowly drawn, referring specifically to cuts in state aid -- a number easy to track and measure.

Asked for backup, Falk’s campaign said she was referring not just to state aid to local schools, but cuts in state funding to the university system and technical colleges. And she meant the biggest cut ever in raw dollars, according to campaign spokesman Scot Ross.

To be sure, Walker made two other moves that affected school budgets: A virtual freeze on schools’ ability to increase property taxes to make up for lost aid, and collective bargaining limits that allowed many districts to cut costs by imposing larger contributions from workers towards health insurance and pensions.

But Falk’s statement was not about net impact, just the state funding side of the equation.

Falk’s campaign did not provide a total of the education cuts, nor provide any history of funding cuts other than to say they had found none bigger.

We did the math and found $792 million in aid cuts to school districts, $250 million in reduced aid to the university system and $71.6 million from the tech colleges.

Total: $1.11 billion.

Looking at it in terms of raw dollars limits the usefulness of any comparison, given inflation. That said, let’s look back.

Local schools

Walker’s budget was not the first to cut education aid, though any cut is rare.

Facing a massive projected shortfall, lawmakers and then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, approved cutting $284 million from aid to school districts in the 2009-11 budget.

The cut under Doyle was the first ever, according to Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a nonpartisan research group that tracks the history of aid changes.

We couldn’t confirm that, but went back to the mid 1980s and found no evidence of a cut. If there was one earlier than that, it couldn’t rival Walker’s -- unless a previous governor cut 100 percent of the school aid budget, which was much smaller then.

Walker’s $792 million cut was much larger in raw dollars than the $284 million cut in 2009, and as a percentage -- 7.4 percent vs. 2.6 percent.

In the first year under Walker’s budget, nearly all districts lost aid, and the median decrease was 9.9 percent, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

University system

Doyle and Walker cut identical amounts -- $250 million -- from the base budget of the UW system. The cut under Doyle was in 2003-05.

The cut under Doyle was a bigger percentage cut than Walker’s because the university system’s biennial budget from state taxes grew from about $2 billion to $2.3 billion between 2003 to 2011.

On the other hand, Walker’s cut was deeper if you factor all the budget adjustments to the state-tax-supported portion of UW’s budget, according to Dave Loppnow, an education funding expert at the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

For instance, UW got more state funding for things like rising fuel and utility costs, offsetting some of the $250 million funding cut. By this measure, it was about an 8 percent reduction by Doyle, and 9 percent under Walker.

Loppnow said the $250 million base-budget cuts under both governors were the largest ever in raw dollars.

Tech schools

Walker proposed, and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed, a 30 percent cut in general aid to the state’s technical college system. That amounted to $71.6 million over two years.

The tech college system found records dating to 1991 that showed only one other general aid cut  -- a 0.5 percent trim in 2007.

As we noted in a recent item, that general aid is only 12 percent of the tech system’s funding, which relies heavily on property taxes.

So, in the big picture, there have been very few instances of cuts to education, with all of them coming in recent years as deficits mounted.

What makes the Walker cuts stand out is the combination -- in the same budget -- of reductions across the three levels of education: kindergarten-12th grade; tech colleges; and the universities.

In 2003-05, when the UW took a hit, Doyle and lawmakers boosted the K-12 budget by 1 percent, or $115 million. And the tech colleges’ general state aid was not reduced.

As we noted, there were many other changes in the budget.

Notably, Walker sharply curtailed collective bargaining rights for public employees, including university and local school employees.

That allowed local school districts to save at least $200 million in pension costs because most districts put in place a pension change made possible by the budget, according to Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates, school officials and our calculations.

The savings to districts from changes to health insurance premiums were significant in some cases, but vary widely by district; no statewide cost savings estimate is available.

But some districts, due to existing union contracts and other reasons, were not able to benefit from the health insurance changes. That underlines an element essential aspect of Falk’s statement: The state controls its aid, but not what is done at the local level.

Our conclusion

Falk claimed Walker’s cuts in state support to local schools, tech colleges and public universities amount to the largest in state history.

We found previous cuts in those areas, but not in all three in the same year, and not nearly as deep when you roll them all together as has Falk.

We rate her statement True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

WXOW online, "Kathleen Falk Campaigns in La Crosse," Feb. 8, 2012

E-mail exchange with Scot Ross, spokesman for Kathleen Falk campaign, Feb. 10-11, 2012

Interview with Dave Loppnow, program supervisor, Education and Building Program, Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Feb. 9, 2012

Interview with Todd Berry, president, Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, Feb. 9, 2012

Email exchange with John Johnson, director of Education Information Services, Department of Public Instruction, Feb. 9, 2012

Interview with Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations, Wisconsin Association of School Boards, Feb. 13, 2012

Interview with Miles Turner, executive director, Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, Feb. 13, 2012

Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Potential Retirement Savings for Public Employers under 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, accessed Feb. 10, 2012

Legislative Fiscal Bureau, school aid report history, Table 5, accessed Feb. 10, 2012

Legislative Fiscal Bureau, archive of reports on state budgets, accessed Feb. 10, 2012

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Recall candidate Kathleen Falk says Governor Scott Walker enacted "the biggest cuts to education in our state's history"

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