MILWAUKEE – There’s no question that Wisconsin’s landmark Act 10 made it a lot less expensive for local public schools to operate.

By eliminating most labor union collective bargaining in schools, K-12 officials found the freedom to adjust their budgets according to their districts’ needs and resources.

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But the benefits of Act 10 go beyond dollars and cents, which is the theme of a new report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), titled “Untold Stories of Act 10: How Superintendents Have Used Act 10 to Reform Public Schools.”

The authors of the report contacted superintendents throughout Wisconsin, to determine how the new flexibility provided by Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 legislation has allowed them to alter their education programs for the benefit of students, without the self-interested intrusion of organized labor.

“Superintendents of public schools no longer have to seek approval from public unions in order to make changes to the administration of their schools,” the report said. “They are free to adopt the best practices of teacher pay and classroom management.

“They can hire and fire teachers according to criteria other than the rigid policies from a union (collective bargaining agreement). The words ‘seniority’ and ‘teacher tenure’ can be terms of the past for many districts.”

The study reveals several types of fundamental changes and reforms that many schools have implemented, now that they have the freedom to do so.

One is merit pay for teachers, in various forms across the state. In the old days of collective bargaining, teachers were stuck on rigid pay scales based strictly on the number of years they taught and the number of graduate credit hours they earned.

Schools were powerless to base compensation on effectiveness in the classroom. That took away a fundamental tool for encouraging teachers to excel.

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As the report put it, “This compensation plan lacked the proper incentives to improve teaching. So, it should be of no surprise that many superintendents threw out the old, union-forced ‘steps and ladders’ compensation scheme in favor of one that rewards performance in the classroom.”

School districts have come up with many different variations of merit pay for teachers, based on individual needs and priorities.

One example is the Oak Creek-Franklin School District, where building principals evaluate teachers on “instructional effectiveness, professionalism, and leadership. This has the effect of increasing the pay for the highest performing teachers from $78,059 to $88,304,” the report said.

Act 10 has given school administrators increased control over much more than just merit pay.

Under the old system, unions collective bargaining agreements specifically dictated how schools would operate, in sometimes startling detail.

“Before 2011, the rigid collective bargaining agreements made it incredibly hard for superintendents to run their schools how they wanted to, i.e. what teachers to hire or fire, what courses should be offered to students, size of classrooms, length of the school day, etc.,” the report said.

“Union collective bargaining agreements also ensured that those teachers with seniority were protected, both with job stability and teaching assignments.

“And then Act 10 happened. Superintendents could now manage their schools – free of union restrictions.”

School board members and administrators have used their new freedom in countless ways to implement changes.

“In 2011, Oconomowoc School District faced a budget shortfall of almost $500,000,” the report said. “In order to bridge this gap, the district reduced staff by cutting 15 teaching positions by qualification – and not seniority.

“In order to make up for the lost staff, the district offered the remaining teachers a $14,000 stipend to teach a fourth class. Such a drastic change would have been impossible before Act 10.”

Teacher unions are notorious for creating uncomfortable and even hostile workplace environments. They keep employers and employees from getting to know each other better and working collaboratively in the interest of students.

But now that the unions have been largely decommissioned by Act 10, teachers and administrators in many districts have formed closer, more cooperative and accountable relationships, according to the report.

Most importantly, teachers are working harder to meet administrative expectations, since they no longer have the protection of their unions or tenure.

“Teachers are visibly more responsive to instruction from the administration without collective bargaining, probably because they are more accountable to their schools directly,” David Krier, a school board member from the Cedarburg district, was quoted as saying in the report.

“They are now extremely motivated to improve themselves, their teaching methods, techniques, skills. Teacher responsiveness to instruction and feedback has greatly improved.”

A lot of teachers enjoy having a more direct, honest and cooperative relationship with administrators, according to the report.

“Previously, I did not feel that my individual concerns and needs were important to the union,” Michelle Uetz, a teacher in the Prescott district, was quoted as saying in the report.

“Now that the path is open for teachers to directly contact administrators, and visa versa, there has been a dramatic increase in teacher input at my school.

“It is important to teachers that we feel heard, and since Act 10, my district more frequently asks for input regarding changes we would like to see in our contracts.

“It’s a more collaborative environment without union politics involved in each detail.”