Wisconsin Teachers, Students Face Uncertain Future
“Care about educators like they care for your child.” It was impossible to miss the thousands of signs with that message in the sea of 100,000 protesters who gathered at Wisconsin’s Capitol on February 26. Since the start of the protests, teachers have been an integral part of the resistance to Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting budget repair bill. The fight against Walker’s bill is now entering its third week, and the governor has already announced that his 2011–13 budget will include more than $800 million in cuts to schools. It is a frightening time for Wisconsin’s public school teachers—and students—and this is only the beginning.
The outcome of this standoff will undoubtedly influence the way state governments across the country negotiate with organized labor. But no matter what the national implications are, here in Wisconsin thousands of public education employees are facing painful pay cuts and layoffs. People who have dedicated their lives to helping others, who entered the profession fully aware that their salaries would never be large, are looking at uncertain futures. And these cuts and uncertainty don’t affect only teachers but the quality of education available to students.
“I knew going into education that some people didn’t like educators, and that’s okay, but this is just disrespectful,” said Jill Kammer, a Middleton special education teacher with thirteen years of experience. “Both my husband and I are special-ed teachers, and we went into teaching hoping that we could afford a house and have a solid income to support a family. Now we wonder if we’ll be able to keep our home. It’s not what we wanted for our family.”
The fight over Walker’s union-busting has consequences for teachers that don’t exist for most other public employees. School districts across Wisconsin shut down, some for three days, during the first week of protests. The possibility of future union actions has teachers worried about their students. “I don’t like being out of my classroom,” said Michael Jones, another Middleton teacher. “Last week was terrible for me. I lost two days of teaching, my kids lost two days of learning. We love teaching. We love being in that room. We love that interaction.”
Public employee unions have already said that they would accept increases in benefit contribution requirements in exchange for the removal of the collective bargaining ban. Walker has remained obstinate, insisting that local governments would have the tools to make spending cuts without layoffs if the unions would accept the end of collective bargaining. Because the governor is vehemently opposed to raising taxes (and has already pushed through over $100 million in tax cuts), arguing that union-busting is the only way out of the budget crisis is disingenuous at best and is at worst an outright lie.
The state’s previous governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, proved there were less drastic ways to manage a budget gap in a troubled economy. Faced with a similarly sized deficit during the state’s last budget deliberations, Doyle instituted furlough days, increased state employee healthcare contributions and used money-shifting budget tricks in the hope that the state’s economy would improve before permanent education funding cuts became unavoidable. Doyle's 2009 strategy kept public jobs and services safe, but at the time even he admitted it was a stopgap measure. In 2011, a different governor might once again have looked for ways to increase revenue rather to avoid massive cuts in school funding, but Walker's budget suggests that he looks forward to a long and ugly battle with educators.
Wisconsin’s projected budget deficit is not extraordinary compared to those of other states. Of the forty-six states facing deficits in 2012 and 2013, Wisconsin falls exactly in the middle of the pack, but most of the states in greater distress have not opened negotiations with the kind of draconian proposals that Walker has made.
The budget repair bill is only the first of what could prove to be a series of devastating blows to Wisconsin’s public education system. The next state budget, which the governor unveiled on March 1, proposes $834 million in cuts to state school aid over two years.
If the state government fills the budget shortfall through cuts to public education, the impacts on communities around the state will be profound. School districts have already begun to send out preliminary layoff notices; at least nine Wisconsin districts have issued notices to their entire staffs (under state statute, districts must give notice by March 15 in order to lay off teachers; the only way to plan for what many say is essentially a doomsday scenario for some districts is to issue notices to all staff and wait until the budget passes to figure out what rules will apply when districts start making staff cuts). Union contracts currently specify how layoffs will be handled. But under Walker’s budget repair bill, the union contracts would nullified, and districts would be able to lay off whichever teachers saved them the most money, without regard to tenure or performance or any other procedural requirement that the contracts included.
There are many ways to manage financial crises like the two-year $3.5 billion deficit; Governor Walker has consciously chosen to focus his attacks on school funding before even considering any other options. When Walker announced his budget repair bill, he was quick to say that eliminating collective bargaining was the only way to navigate the budget cuts he was about to announce. Under his bill, individual school boards will be the ones who are forced to make the difficult choices: slash the salaries and benefits of all teachers, or lay off some teachers and keep compensation higher for those who survive the cuts.
The teachers who expect to be targeted first are not going to go quietly. One Marshfield teacher with thirty-five years of experience told a reporter that she had already started contacting local business to tell them they will lose money if teachers like her are replaced by cheaper, younger teachers.
No matter how hard Governor Walker and his Republican allies try to insist that public employees like teachers are overpaid and should face the brunt of his cuts, Wisconsin’s college-educated public employees earn, on average, 25 percent less than those in the private sector. The state ranks twenty-third in average teacher pay and forty-sixth when it comes to starting teacher salaries. Further cuts to benefits and bargaining rights could lead the most qualified young teachers to other states or out of the profession entirely.
Says Howard Schweber, associate professor of political science, “One reason to get rid of collective bargaining, aside from the desire to break the political power of public unions, is to open the door to the abolition of tenure for school teachers.” Without tenure, he points out, “districts could lay off the most senior, most experienced, best trained—in other words, the most expensive—teachers first.”
“This situation has completely undermined my ability to prepare young, energetic, talented people to come into education and to get those people to stay in Wisconsin,” admits Kevin Cunningham, a PhD candidate who teaches in the University of Wisconsin, Madison, education department and supervises student teachers. “I am trying to remain optimistic, but the bottom line is, is what we ask these future teachers to do worth it? No one goes into teaching expecting to make a lot of money, but people go in expecting to be treated as professionals who are capable of making decisions about their classrooms, and this bill would strip that from them.”
Walker’s proposal will make it difficult, if not impossible, for many young teachers to afford the professional training required to remain in education. Very few school districts reimburse teachers for the classes they must take to stay certified, so most teachers must pay for school tuition and conference fees out of their own pockets.
“I was going to grad school, but I’ll probably have to stop that and get a second job,” said Jones, who estimated that he and his wife, also a state employee, could see a drop of as much as $10,000 in their take-home pay if Walker’s budget bill goes through. “All my professional development stuff is after school. If I have to work a second job, I’ll be too tired or busy for [my own] classes. If I can’t do that, I’m not going to be a good teacher.”
As it becomes clearer that Walker’s proposals will make it harder to attract talented young teachers, the state must also confront the possibility that it will lose its most veteran educators much faster than anticipated. Rather than face layoffs or a loss of long-held rights, an unprecedented number of the state’s most experienced teachers are already considering retirement. The week the demonstrations began, the department that administers state retirement funds fielded three times as many requests for estimated benefit payments as it did during the same week in 2010.
If thousands of experienced teachers retire, the state would save some of the money Walker says is so desperately needed. But Wisconsin pays its starting teachers less than almost every other state in the Midwest. Without competitive benefits or collective bargaining, it is hard to imagine anything but dedication and state loyalty keeping passionate teachers from abandoning the state’s children.
Will loyalty and passion be enough? Governor Walker still has the votes and power to force virtually all of the concessions that he wants from unions and local governments, but few public workers seem ready to give up the fight. While no concrete plans have been announced, a general strike is still a very real possibility, one whose implications individual public educators are still considering. Over two days, I heard people say, “I didn’t get into teaching for the money” almost as often as I heard crowds tell me that they were what democracy looked like. “Teaching is hard; actually, it’s hard to do well,” says Cunningham, the teacher trainer. “The best recruitment tool we have is to be good at what we do and to share our passion.” Scott Walker’s Wisconsin may lack the teachers with the passion necessary to inspire future generations of educators.