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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Wisconsin’s Baffling Budget Battle

The truth about the budget gap, collective bargaining, teachers' salaries and test scores.


The budget battle in Wisconsin has generated much confusion and misinformation, as we have seen in e-mails from our readers in recent days:

  • The state is not on track to end this fiscal year with "a slight surplus." It is facing a $137 million deficit this fiscal year and a $3.6 billion deficit in the next two-year budget cycle.
  • It’s also not true that "the average Wisconsin teacher’s salary is $100,000." Salaries vary by school district. It’s true, however, that the total average compensation — salary and benefits — exceeded $100,000 for Milwaukee teachers in fiscal year 2011.
  • It is true that Gov. Walker’s plan would strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from teachers and many other state and local employees, and University of Wisconsin employees would lose those rights altogether. But police, firefighters and state troopers would be exempt.
  • Wisconsin is one of 35 states where teachers have mandatory collective bargaining rights. But it’s not true that only five states do not have collective bargaining. Five states ban it, while 10 others don’t guarantee it.
  • A claim that Wisconsin ranks second in combined SAT and ACT scores is based on 12-year-old data and flawed methodology. Even the author of that report says it shouldn’t be taken "too seriously."

Read on for more complete answers to reader questions on the Wisconsin situation.


Newly elected Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, introduced a state budget repair bill on Feb. 11 that has attracted national attention because it seeks major changes to the state’s collective bargaining laws. The bill, which is needed to close a $137 million budget gap in the current fiscal year, would allow most state workers to keep their bargaining rights on salaries — but end collective bargaining on all other issues, including health care costs, pensions and workplace conditions. The AFL-CIO and other unions see this as an attack on unions, while the governor sees it as a necessary way to control future labor costs and avoid another budget crisis.

The budget repair bill has led to a showdown between the Republican governor and Democratic state lawmakers — some of whom fled the Capitol in an attempt to prevent a vote on the bill. It has also caused some confusion among people trying to follow the budget crisis.

How Bad Is Wisconsin’s Fiscal Condition?

One reader asked us to sort out conflicting information about whether Wisconsin had a surplus or a deficit:

Q: Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin claims that the state is broke with a $3 billion deficit projected. I read an article that claims a budget shortfall double that size was projected last budget cycle but the gap was closed to the point of a slight surplus for the cycle. What are the facts related to this intense battle in my state?

Wisconsin is facing a potential $3.6 billion shortfall for its next biennium, or two-year budget cycle, according to figures released by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau in January. The budget period begins on July 1, 2011, and ends on June 30, 2013. That figure is more than $2 billion less than the $5.9 billion projected deficit that former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle had to tackle at the beginning of the 2009-2011 fiscal cycle. So, that was not quite "double" the deficit that Walker is potentially looking at, as our reader was told.

Doyle was able to erase a large portion of his projected gap through a series of spending cuts and tax increases. But funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — known as the stimulus act — also played a significant part in easing the state’s budget woes. More than $2 billion in stimulus funds were used to narrow the budget gap for the 2009-2011 cycle. That’s money the state will have to do without this time around, since those funds run out at the end of June, according to Robert Lang, the fiscal bureau director.

And the state’s financial business hasn’t been completely settled for the current fiscal cycle, either. Walker is trying to find a way to fill a projected $137 million gap for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. His controversial budget repair bill seeks to do so, in part, by increasing state worker contributions for pension and health benefits, among other things.

A false claim that the state would end this fiscal year with a surplus stems from a misreading by some — including MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow — of a memo issued in January by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau showing a $121 million gross balance in the state’s general accounting fund. That figure, however, doesn’t factor in more than $170 million for Medicaid services, or $21 million for corrections programs, that haven’t been funded. It also doesn’t include more than $58 million Wisconsin owes the state of Minnesota for a tax reciprocity deal involving income tax collected from Wisconsin residents who worked in Minnesota. Lang told us in an e-mail that those amounts were not reflected in the January memo, because they would require further action from the Legislature and the governor. Dealing with those costs before the end of June would push the general fund into the negative, he said.

The fiscal bureau says the bill being pushed by Walker would address funding for the Medicaid and corrections shortfalls, but wouldn’t address the outstanding payments to Minnesota, or an additional $3.5 million shortfall in appropriations for the state public defender’s office.

How High Are Teachers’ Salaries?

Teachers’ salaries also have become an issue in Wisconsin. One reader asked:

Q: It has been stated (I believe by [Pat] Buchanan) that the average Wisconsin teacher’s salary is $100,000. Can this be true?

It’s not true that the average Wisconsin teacher earns $100,000 in salary. In fact, no Wisconsin school district had an average teacher salary of $100,000 during the 2009-2010 school year. But don’t blame conservative commenter Pat Buchanan for the misinformation. Buchanan, who wrote a recent op-ed on the topic for the Union Leader, was referring only to Milwaukee public schools, and he was including both salary and benefits.

Buchanan, Feb. 23: According to the MacIver Institute, the average teacher in the Milwaukee public schools earns $100,000 a year — $56,000 in pay, $44,000 in benefits — and enjoys job security.

Buchanan cited a MacIver Institute report that included a video clip of Deb Wegner, manager of financial planning for the Milwaukee Public Schools. In the video, Wegner said the average Milwaukee teacher in fiscal year 2011 will earn a total compensation of $100,005 — including $56,500 in salary. But Milwaukee is not representative of the entire state of Wisconsin — and that’s where some, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have gone wrong. On the "David Letterman Show" on Feb. 24, the Republican senator made a misleading claim when discussing the "generous" average teacher pay in Wisconsin. (Paul’s comments start at 9:40 in this video.)

Paul, Feb. 24: But I guess the argument is, is you have to look at the details and say: Have we been generous with teachers in Wisconsin? The average teacher in Wisconsin is making $89,000 a year to work nine months.

There is no official calculation of the average salary of Wisconsin public school teachers, according to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesman Patrick Gasper. The National Education Association estimates the average Wisconsin teacher’s salary to be $51,121. The state Department of Public Instruction only calculates average teacher salary and benefits on a district by district basis. As of fiscal year 2010, none of the school districts in Wisconsin had an average teacher salary of $100,000 (as our reader asked) or even $89,000 (the amount Paul said the average teacher in Wisconsin "is making.")

Of the 425 public school districts in Wisconsin, only one had a salary and benefits package in 2010 that exceeded $100,000; the Nicolet Unified School District average total compensation was $103,315. And only 22 school districts — about 5 percent of the total — paid average total compensation that topped $89,000.

Does Wisconsin Rank Second on SAT/ACT Scores?

One misleading claim that has been circulating through Twitter, reader forums, blogs, Facebook and e-mail suggests Wisconsin’s SAT and ACT test scores are high because the state’s teachers can bargain collectively. Several readers asked us if this is true:

Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for teachers. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows:

South Carolina – 50th

North Carolina – 49th

Georgia – 48th

Texas – 47th

Virginia – 44th

Wisconsin — WITH its collective bargaining for teachers — is ranked 2nd in the country.

It’s true that Wisconsin students do well on standardized tests relative to students in other states, but this e-mail is misleading in several ways — thus exaggerating the state’s success:

  • There is no accepted standard of combining SAT and ACT scores to rank states. Ranking states by even one of the standardized tests can be misleading, depending on participation rates.
  • It’s true that five states specifically ban collective bargaining for teachers, but it is also true that 10 other states do not have collective bargaining laws — giving school boards the final say in salary and working conditions in 15 states, not just five.
  • The rankings appear to be based on test scores from 12 years ago.

We’ll go through the claims one at a time.

First, the e-mail claims "only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for teachers." That’s not true. There are 35 states that have laws that give teachers mandatory collective bargaining rights, and 15 states that do not. That’s according to the Education Commission of the States — a nonpartisan interstate compact formed by 49 states, three territories and the District of Columbia. Of the 15 states that do not have collective bargaining laws, five of them ban collective bargaining. So what does that mean for the 10 other states that don’t have collective bargaining laws but do not ban it? Stanford University professors Susanna Loeb and Luke C. Miller at the School of Education wrote a 2006 paper on state teacher policies that said schools boards have the final say in those 10 other states.

Loeb and Miller, December 2006: Five of these States – Georgia, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia – explicitly prohibit teachers from collective bargaining activities. In the other States, teachers may organize for the purpose of contract negotiations. However, school boards are under no legal mandate to bargain in good faith. Rather, “meet and confer” practices are generally followed with the school board having the final decision on all teacher salary and working condition matters.

As for the standardized tests, the SAT and ACT differ in content, both measuring students’ aptitude in a variety of subjects and skills. The e-mail shows a ranking of states based on the combined average SAT and ACT scores, but it’s not clear who ranked the states, what methodology was used or what year it was done (more on that later). Regardless, the College Board — which administers the SAT test — says there is not an accepted method for combining SAT and ACT scores into a composite ranking. A more common method (also discouraged by the College Board) is to look at the average SAT and ACT scores for each state separately. But even then, not all students take the tests, so comparisons can be skewed by differing participation rates.

The Commonwealth Foundation, a nonprofit educational research group in Pennsylvania, created a chart ranking states by average 2010 SAT performance. The data came from the state reports from the College Board. Wisconsin ranked third among all states and the District of Columbia. But only 4 percent of Wisconsin students participated in the SAT in 2010, so the ranking isn’t very meaningful.

In 2010, 69 percent of Wisconsin students took the ACT. And what did those results show? The state-by-state composite ACT scores for 2010 show Wisconsin students scored an average of 22.1, which is higher than the national average of 21 and better than 32 states and the District of Columbia. Seventeen states scored higher than Wisconsin; one had the same score. But, again, such comparisons are dicey. Only four states had higher composite ACT scores than Maine, but only 10 percent of its graduates took the test. The College Board warns against making such comparisons. In an e-mail, Katherine Levin, a College Board spokeswoman, called such comparisons "invalid" since the students taking the test are self-selected.

Levin, Feb. 25: Media and others often rank states, districts and schools on the basis of SAT scores despite repeated warnings that such rankings are invalid. The SAT is a strong indicator of trends in the college-bound population, but it should never be used alone for such comparisons because demographics and other nonschool factors can have a strong effect on scores. If ranked, schools and states that encourage students to apply to college may be penalized because scores tend to decline with a rise in percentage of test-takers.

It appears that the rankings circulating in viral e-mails and on the Internet come from a project at the University of Missouri-Kansas City on "state enlightenment" that ranked states based on several factors, including combined SAT/ACT test scores. The state rankings in that report, which was authored by law professor Douglas O. Linder, are the same as the rankings in the e-mail. But Linder’s report is based on 1999 test scores. Linder told us in an e-mail that his rankings were not scientific and not intended to be taken "too seriously." Although he added that he has "all the confidence in the world, for example, that students in #2 Wisconsin knew their stuff better than, say, students in #50 South Carolina (at least in 1999–though I’m quite sure also today)."

What Would Happen to Collective Bargaining?

We were also asked who would be affected by Walker’s plan to limit collective bargaining:

Q: Is it true that Wisconsin’s governor is proposing to eliminate collective bargaining rights for only some public unions? Why only some and not all? Is it true that the firemen and police unions would not be affected by the bill?

Yes, some unions will be treated differently than others. Under current law, municipal and state employees are allowed to collectively bargain over wages, hours and employment conditions. Walker’s proposal would limit the bargaining ability of some union employees, and eliminate it altogether for others, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau.

Most public safety employees at the county and city level, for example, are completely exempted from the proposal’s bargaining restrictions. That would include police officers, firefighters, state troopers and sheriff deputies, although there are some public safety officers — such as state criminal investigators, park wardens and university police officers — who are not exempted. Those few public safety workers and all other public employee unions — including teachers and transit workers — would see their bargaining abilities limited strictly to issues concerning wages. A cap would also be instituted so that employees could not — unless approved by a voter referendum — bargain for wage increases larger than the change in the consumer price index.

And University of Wisconsin System workers, and employees of the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority, would no longer be permitted to collectively bargain at all. Neither would certain home care and child care providers.

In addition, Walker’s proposal would ban deductions for union dues from the paychecks of state and municipal employees, except for public safety workers. And it would permit those employees to remain members of the collective bargaining unit, even if they do not pay union dues. 

Correction, March 4: An alert reader points out that the 2009-2010 salary information contained in the Wisconsin Department of Instruction database for the Kenosha Unified School District is different than the 2009-2010 salary information provided by the school district on its website. The state database says the average teacher salary at Kenosha was $18,983 in 2009-2010, but the school district website says it was actually $56,595. In addition, we determined that the state database also contains inaccurate information for the Niagara School District’s average fringe benefit for teachers. The state reported Niagara’s average benefit at $6,459, but Niagara business manager Patricia Hammill said that figure is too low. She could not provide an average, but said it ranges from about $13,000 to $36,000. DPI spokesman John Johnson said the figures in the database are provided by the districts, but not audited by the state and the information should be verified by contacting the districts directly. For this reason, we updated this article to remove any reference to average salaries and benefits in individual school districts — except for Milwaukee, which comes from the school district itself.

Update, March 4. We have gotten several questions from readers asking about the impact of the governor’s tax breaks on the state’s deficit. You can read more about that in our latest post, "Walker’s Tax Cuts."

— by Eugene Kiely, Lara Seligman, D’Angelo Gore, Lauren Hitt and Michael Morse


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