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The Associated Press March 16, 2011, 4:43PM ET

Gov. Walker defends proposal cutting Wis. schools

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called together school superintendents Wednesday to bolster support for his budget proposal that cuts 8 percent of state aid to districts and reduces their ability to make up the difference through property taxes.

The nearly $900 million in proposed cuts were a major part of Walker's argument for passing a separate bill that forced teachers and other public workers to pay more for their benefits and took away nearly all their collective bargain rights.

Under the contentious new law, public employees will only be able to collectively bargain over wage increases no greater than inflation. Walker argues that will free school districts to seek out other, less expensive, insurance providers than those currently called for under collective bargaining agreements.

Walker has said those savings, combined with money districts will save through teachers and other employees paying more for their benefits, will help negate the aid reduction he's proposing in the two-year state budget.

The governor called a Wednesday afternoon news conference with three school superintendents to talk about his plan.

Democratic lawmakers say Walker is trying to defund public schools and privatize the educational system. His plan repeals the enrollment limit for the virtual charter school and Milwaukee school choice programs at the same time it cuts aid to public schools.

"It's a draconian proposal," said Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, a Democrat from Verona. "It's draconian and it's certainly going to affect the quality of education."

Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, said Walker has ignored another plan to restructure the state aid formula to make the distribution of money more fair proposed by state Superintendent Tony Evers during the campaign last year.

Even if Walker would propose no new money for schools, he could do a better job distributing it than what is proposed in his budget, Clark said.

Teachers played a large role in the Madison protests that grew as large as 100,000 people over the past month to object to Walker's collective bargaining changes. Several schools had to close because so many teachers came to the Capitol. The Madison district shut down for four days.

Mary Bell, the president of the statewide teachers union the Wisconsin Education Association Council, was one of the most vocal critics of Walker's collective bargaining changes and has said his proposed aid cuts go too far.

"You simply cannot cut three-quarters of a billion dollars out of our education system and deliver on the basic promise to provide youth with a quality education," Bell said when Walker unveiled his budget earlier this month.

Bell predicted the plan would result in unprecedented teacher layoffs. Amid the uncertainty of Walker's proposals, many districts have started notifying teachers earlier than usual that they may not be rehired for next year.

Schools are trying to figure out just how much money they will lose under Walker's plan, which the Legislature will consider over the next few months and likely pass sometime around July.

A nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis released Tuesday determined that if the plan had been in effect this year, most districts would have seen state aid cut by about 10 percent while a few would have seen an increase due to their specific circumstances under the complicated state aid formula.

The Dover School District in Racine County would have seen the biggest increase at 17.5 percent, but bigger districts like Milwaukee Public Schools would have been cut 8 percent and Madison Public Schools would have been cut more than 10 percent.

In addition to the state aid cuts, Walker also proposes reducing school district revenue limits by 5.5 percent. The revenue limits cap how much districts can raise from school aid and property taxes combined.

Under that provision, districts that do receive more aid would be forced to lower their property taxes. Those that have their aid cut would be limited in their ability to make up the difference through higher property taxes.

Walker has repeatedly said districts could save $68 million if they dropped the insurance provider WEA Trust.

Teachers and others in 65 percent of Wisconsin's 424 school districts current receive health insurance from WEA Trust, a nonprofit company started 40 years ago by the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union. About 35 percent of all public school employees in the state are covered by WEA Trust, said its spokesman Steve Lyons.

Lyons said Walker's $68 million savings estimate, which is based on a 2005 study by the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, was overblown.

Passage of the law taking away collective bargaining rights will only make districts look for the most competitive plans, and WEA Trust will remain attractive in that market, Lyons said.

"Yes, the collective bargaining piece is gone but I think because their budgets have been decreased, they're going to look for the best value and the best price in insurance," Lyons said. "When all the dust settles, when all the politics is over, it's going to come down to dollars."

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