WILL Blog | Flanders and Roth: Analysis Trumps Anecdotes

WILL’s Education Research Director, Dr. Will Flanders, and WILL Research Fellow, Collin Roth, respond to a series featured in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about the education profession and state of schools in post-Act 10 Wisconsin.

In the last two weeks, Dave Umhoefer and Sara Hauer of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have released findings of a superintendent survey on Act 10 in Wisconsin (part 1 and part 2).  There is a wealth of information, including an impressive spreadsheet of all school districts’ teacher salaries, enrollment changes, and costs per student.

In the latest article, they conclude that “Act 10 collective bargaining law handed an advantage to better-paying public school districts.”  It “escalated movement between districts, with free market competition pitting districts of varying size, quality and financial strength against one another.”

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty produced the most comprehensive econometric analysis of Act 10 that has been conducted to date.  There are a number of aspects to the Act 10 story that are either not included or not sufficiently fleshed out in the Journal Sentinel’s reporting.  Here is our response:

  1. Is empowering teachers now a bad thing? It’s not particularly difficult to recall how opposition to Act 10 was rooted in the harm it would do to teachers. This was central to teachers’ unions’ opposition. But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s dive into the ‘new teacher marketplace’ reveals an environment where it is teachers, in particular, quality teachers, that have leverage. The Journal Sentinel described one young English teacher (note: not just STEM teachers are benefitting) who was willing to work longer hours in Oconomowoc and saw her earnings rise 70%. When districts compete for teachers, it’s good for teachers.

    But many have spoken out against this, saying that it exacerbates inequality between school districts.  For example, Superintendent Tony Evers said complained that “lots of smaller districts really have a difficult time in the free agency business.”  We find it interesting that the narrative on Act 10 has shifted from, ‘Act 10 is bad because it is bad for teachers’ to ‘Act 10 is bad because it is good for teachers.’ Act 10 opponents can’t have it both ways.

  1. No mention of change in experience or student-teacher ratios.  A point that is largely glossed over in the article is that, despite extensive complaints regarding the difficulty in recruiting teachers, student-teacher ratios have remained relatively the same.  Most critical here, our study broke down student-teacher ratios by urbanicity, and found that there has been no significant change in student-teacher ratios in the rural areas that the report suggests have faced the most difficulty.  Whatever difficulties these schools face in recruiting new teachers, it would appear they are successfully overcoming them.
  2. No parade of retirees. Despite the “parade of retirees” that the Journal Sentinel mentions, there is little evidence that the age of the teaching workforce has changed appreciably.  We found in our analysis that the average years of experience of Wisconsin teachers had declined by .76 years since Act 10.  While this finding was statistically significant, there is little reason to think that such a small decline in teacher experience would have a significant impact on student education.
  3. Act 10 requires administrators to get creative.  The Journal Sentinel authors make the case that there are school districts in Wisconsin that are getting squeezed out of recruiting or retaining good teachers. This is blamed on revenue limits meant to keep Wisconsin’s high property tax burden down. But, if a school district does feel that it needs additional revenue to recruit better teachers, the district has two options. They can make the case to voters that such a property tax increase is needed.  When such tax referenda fail, it is not necessarily indicative of the need for state intervention, but rather that people in the community are satisfied with the status quo. The other option districts have is cutting administrative bloat. Our Act 10 study revealed that school districts may not be utilizing Act 10 to make their central offices more efficient. We found district-level administrative support staff and school administrators have increased relative to students since the implementation of Act 10 in 2011.
  4. Methodology.  Many of the results reported in the story are based on a survey of superintendents throughout the state.  In this ambitious undertaking, the newspaper received a response rate of approximately 53%.  While not on the extreme low end, this response rate does raise some concerns about the sample.   It is well known in survey research that those who are most interested in the topic are those who will take the time and effort required to respond to surveys.   Despite the fact that they received responses from a “cross section of districts geographically and by enrollment” it is possible that those superintendents who took the time were those that were most impassioned about Act 10—either positively or negatively.

The Journal-Sentinel has doubtless provided useful anecdotes about what life is like on the ground for the teaching workforce post-Act 10.  But singular anecdotes do not always provide the complete picture.  We think that our analysis, inclusive as it was of all districts in the state, should be far more useful to policymakers in understanding the overall effects of Act 10.


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