With $300 million in cuts proposed for the University of Wisconsin System, it is tempting to say that the sky is falling. But saying that requires real cuts and real impacts that are felt immediately by the general public. Unfortunately, the impact of these cuts will take years to be fully felt.
In the fight against Act 10, one of the left's bigger mistakes was shouting that the sky is falling. Then Act 10 happened and many Wisconsinites didn't feel like much changed. Sure, there were some immediate losses. State workers saw a drop in income, good teachers retired early, and class sizes increased. Schools, particularly rural schools, were forced to cut programs or go to referendum.
But the real wounds of Act 10 are taking time to show themselves. Without unions, there are no organizations fighting to keep class sizes small. This state has a demoralized teaching force that only feels more under attack with every policy passed and election lost. What kinds of students would want to even become a teacher in this climate?
Act 10, the drain of vouchers, demand to teach to the test -- it takes years for the real damage of these policies to show up. Cuts to our educational systems are like choosing to order pizza instead of going to the gym. You don't see the damage right away, but it builds up over time.
The UW System has endured several rounds of cuts through the Jim Doyle and Scott Walker administrations. Each time, it's made it through those cuts without the public noticing too much. But the cuts are there: We had years of rising tuition to make up for the loss of state aid, an outsourcing of university jobs like we saw in the current layoffs at UW-Superior, a forced dwindling of the very cash reserves that were meant to protect against cuts.
The impact of this new round of cuts will be felt in waves.
The first wave will be the layoffs, the loss of living wage jobs for custodial, food service workers, IT and admin support staff in campuses all over the state. The impact of losing these relatively good-paying jobs will be felt hardest in the small cities with campuses -- places like Whitewater, Menomonie and Stevens Point.
Students will feel some of these cuts too. You don't notice how many academic advisers there are when you go on the college tour, but you'll notice how many of them have been laid off when you are trying to graduate.
The second wave will be skyrocketing costs. Students and their families won't feel the sticker shock of increased tuition right away. A tuition freeze will stop that until 2017. The double-digit tuition increase will come conveniently after the presidential election, much like how Walker gave everyone tax cuts in 2014 and now we've got to pay for those irresponsible cuts after the gubernatorial election. Students will be priced out of our schools, particularly UW-Madison if the Board of Regents allows it to raise tuition separately from the rest of the System.
Wave three is a philosophical one, one that will define Wisconsin in the years and decades to come. Do we feel our kids have the right to an education from K-12 and beyond, or is college something for the privileged? Do we value education as much as we do roads or prisons? Do we want to be an innovator? Do we want to keep our best and brightest here in Wisconsin, or do we want to ship the brainy kids to Minnesota and Illinois?
The University of Wisconsin System is one of the things I am most proud of as a Wisconsinite. I'm not just talking about UW-Madison. I'm talking about all the four-year campuses, two-year campuses and UW Extension's statewide efforts. For so long, this state has made it easy to go to college. My mom lived in the tiny town of Black River Falls and was able to (affordably) finish her college degree at UW-Eau Claire while raising me by herself. That degree opened doors and changed both of our lives.
I worry for someone who, like my mom, tries to go back to school in a few years but is faced with fewer educational choices and tuition hikes.
The sky is falling. It is just falling slowly enough we won't realize it right away.