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Lawsuit, Teacher Layoffs Follow Wisconsin Budget Signing

Scott Walker

First Posted: 06/30/11 05:07 PM ET Updated: 08/30/11 06:12 AM ET

Just days after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed the state's budget with massive cuts to education funding, Wisconsin's teachers are on the chopping block and making their way to court.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council announced on Wednesday that its members were filing suit over a law that requires all state agencies -- including the Department of Public Instruction -- to run any new regulations by Walker for approval.

"This suit was filed as a way to make sure education policies in our state are conducted in a way that is in line with our state constitution," Christine Brey, WEAC spokeswoman, told The Huffington Post. "All students should have the opportunities to have education policies driven by what’s best for schools and separate and apart from politics."

The suit alleges that the law is unconstitutional because it violates lines of authority established in the Wisconsin Constitution.

“The state constitution clearly requires that the elected state superintendent establish educational policies,” WEAC President Mary Bell, a plaintiff in the suit, said in a statement. “The governor’s extreme power grab must not spill over into education policy in our schools. Our constitution was written to protect our schools from this type of political takeover, to be sure that sound education decisions are made in the best interest of students."

Walker's office did not respond to requests seeking comment.

“The Department of Public Instruction testified about our concerns regarding the constitutionality of the new law that changes the administrative rules process when it was introduced to the legislature," Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction spokesperson John Johnson said in a statement. "The courts will now settle this issue.”

The Wisconsin case follows a similar suit filed in Michigan last week that sought to overturn the law enabling Gov. Rick Snyder (R) to appoint "emergency managers" with near carte blanche over economically struggling cities or school districts.

The lawsuit is one component of the political turmoil that has swept education in Wisconsin, leaving some teachers feeling demoralized.

As school districts countrywide struggle to keep educators in their budgets, Milwaukee pulled out the ax Wednesday, announcing that it had sent pink slips to 519 school employees -- including 354 teachers -- in light of Walker's $84 million cut in state aid to the school district. Elementary school teachers bore the brunt of the cuts, with the newest teachers being cut first. Those with specialized training were spared.

Superintendent Gregory Thornton said the layoffs came because the unions failed to concede a 1.5 percent pension contribution and furlough days.

"We appreciate all that our staff members have given thus far,” Thornton said in a statement. “But we have nowhere else to go. We tried lobbying for aid in Madison and in Washington, D.C., but with little effect. We must have our union partners at the table. Yes, we want to keep more teachers on the job, but I am also thinking about our kids. If we can retain more teachers, we can prevent class sizes from increasing.”

Calls to the local union were not returned.

The Milwaukee layoffs echo others across the state, coming after Walker's budget slashed education funding and eliminated nearly all collective bargaining rights for public employees.

"We're doing our best to make sure that the story is told, that people understand what's happening in Milwaukee and outside," Bell told HuffPost. "We're doing everything to explain exactly how many ways the government and the legislature have chosen to defund public education."

"Our next step is restoring balance to Wisconsin's government, bringing back checks and balances," Bell added.

With stimulus funding coming to an end and the economic crisis still imperiling local finances, several cities across the country are feeling the education budget crunch and responding with layoffs -- or threats of layoffs.

"What's going on nationally is there's a big struggle about how school policy is set and whether labor laws dictate and constrain all of the decision making in schools," said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute. "How this works out is unclear."

Unlike Milwaukee, Detroit Public Schools' budget cut many things, from salaries to administrators, but not teachers. The budget cut 10 percent of all employees' pay and 853 positions -- including 12 principals -- reducing its head count by about 8.5 percent. The new budget, which faced a public hearing earlier this week, called for issuing $200 million in long-term bonds to reduce the deficit to $127 million.

After months of threatening to fire 4,000 teachers, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reached a deal over the weekend that spared their jobs. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew suspended sabbaticals for a year in exchange for holding onto the teachers.

Meanwhile, Chicago is preparing to cut 1,000 teachers due to a large budget deficit. The layoffs come after tense dealings between teachers' unions and officials, with CPS' decision to rescind an agreed-upon salary raise sparking protests. Last year, the school system laid off 3,000 teachers.

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