Should education exist to serve big business or should it serve the citizens of Wisconsin? The answer depends on whether you’re looking at it from the perspective of the Walker Administration or almost any other person in our state.

The “Wisconsin Idea” is a philosophy adopted by the university system in the early 20th Century that strives to solve problems and improve health, quality of life, the environment, and agriculture for all citizens of the state. In his 2015 budget, Gov. Walker proposed removing tenets of the Wisconsin Idea from the university system’s mission statement. So, rather than “serve and stimulate society,” Walker wanted to rewrite the system’s goal to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Fortunately, Wisconsinites didn’t buy it. After the negative outcry, the Wisconsin Idea survived the governor’s assault on it. However, while the wording of the university system’s mission remained intact, it hasn’t prevented the Walker Administration from moving forward with turning the system into little more than a feeder for big business.

The current administration sees learning as a “top down” system – universities and colleges should do little more than react to business’ appetite for workers. This works great for large corporations, but if you’re Jessica or Jason Jones, aspiring entrepreneurs from one of the small rural towns in our state, it doesn’t exactly inspire you to look at the University of Wisconsin System as an option for fulfilling your dreams.

That’s why our campaign looks at things differently. We see learning working best from the bottom up – take care of the needs of students first.

When our educational system provides stimulating lifelong learning opportunities to all individuals and communities throughout the state, while empowering our educators, everybody wins.

Since 2015, the Walker Administration has been responsible for cutting more than $250 million – more than a quarter of a billion dollars – from the University of Wisconsin System’s budget. And, as the budget goes down, so does enrollment. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the system estimates enrollment is down 2,500 students this academic year compared to the previous one. And the state’s two-year colleges are suffering, too. As their budgets have been slashed, their enrollments have dropped as much as 52 percent since 2010.

To address the declining enrollments and shrinking budgets, a plan is on the table to merge the UW System with UW Colleges. But critics say – and we agree – that this solution is highly flawed.

The university system was created to broaden access to higher education, and the two-year colleges in particular were seen as an affordable introduction to universities, especially for students in rural parts of the state.  The fear is that if the colleges are absorbed into the larger system, those points of entry will vanish. That not only hurts the students who would have used them, but the dedicated professors who are employed in those systems, and the communities in which the schools are located.

Instead of merely patching up a leaky boat, we think it’s time to reconfigure the legacy education system and create a culture for lifelong learning, no matter where you live in Wisconsin.

Our solution involves investing in community-based education throughout the state, to support and develop community programs that work with our UW System and technical colleges where people can:

  • Displaced workers can train for new jobs
  • Students can get online college credits
  • Single parents can get their degrees
  • Older or retired workers can continue to enrich their lives with ongoing learning.

When we focus on lifelong learning, it puts money back into the communities. It gives people opportunities not only to prepare to go work for the state’s businesses, but also to help create those businesses in small- and medium-sized towns as well as big cities. Creating a culture for lifelong learning will help us build vibrant Wisconsin communities that work for all age groups and in every corner of our state.

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