Will Teachers Desert Wisconsin?
Many teachers say they feel undervalued. And statistics show turnover of teachers and a reduction in education candidates.
To Loribeth Chenault, a Milwaukee Public Schools English teacher at Hamilton High School, the public’s perception of teachers has changed dramatically since the passage of Act 10. Whereas in 2008, at the start of her career, she brushed off an occasional anti-teacher comment, she now hears similar sentiments expressed on a regular basis. “It’s all become rather hostile,” she says. “It is almost like anyone who finds you’re a teacher suddenly feels obligated to comment on your work ethic.”
Chenault is among many teachers who feel undervalued or discouraged about their profession today. There are also signs of increasing teacher turnover in some districts and a decline in the number of students enrolling in education programs. If that continues, it could be a problem for Wisconsin.
Stefanie Klopp, a teacher at Fernwood Public Montessori, another MPS school, had no sense of what the public thought of teachers back when she started teaching (also in 2008), because she really never heard any comments. That is, until Act 10 passed, which she believes prodded people to speak out about their negative opinions of teachers and public schools. “Whatever was hiding under the surface seems now to be worn as a badge of honor by those who have strong opinions against public schools,” she says.
John Jacobson, the Social Studies Chairperson at Shorewood High School, was taken aback by the hostility toward teachers that has arisen in recent years, and thinks Act 10 gave those feelings a platform. “I frankly never expected to be part of any public hostility,” he notes, “but Act 10 demonstrated just how naïve I was.”
In many cases the opinions stem from a lack of understanding of what teachers actually do. One of the biggest frustrations felt by the teachers is people’s misconceptions about their work and how they are paid. “People believe we get paid for 12 months while only working 10 months,” Klopp states. “This is not true. We get paid from September until June, meaning we are essentially unemployed for two months.”
Since teachers are salaried, the amount of unpaid overtime can be immense. Klopp estimates working at least 50-60 hours per week, while Chenault lists all of the work she does that is unpaid and not in her contract: writing letters of recommendation, developing partnerships with local universities and other public schools, and maintaining current knowledge of academic best practices. “Critics don’t understand the amount of time we are putting into our jobs.”
Unions represent teachers and advocate to protect them, which critics have argued makes it tougher to terminate poor ones. But Eric Bauer, a teacher in the Mequon-Thiensville School District, disputes the idea that before Act 10 it was all but impossible to terminate poor teachers. “If new hires are not able to teach to the standards of our district, they are not retained,” he says. “This is unchanged from the way the system worked prior to Act 10.”
Bauer believes the biggest impact of Act 10 is removing professional educators from policy decisions, meaning they have no say at all in the philosophical approach to education in their district. “Instead, elements like the Common Core and the move to base educational decisions on data generated from standardized tests run unchecked through the districts of this state.”
While the teachers have many problems with Act 10, they do have some positive things to say about it. Jacobson says it helped a financially strained state and Klopp believes it led to a new wave of young, energized teachers following the retirement of many veteran teachers, some of whom were no longer committed to the profession.
Still, the negative consequences of Act 10 far outweigh the benefits, these teachers believe. “I’ve become a scapegoat for students who don’t do well for a myriad of reasons,” Chenault says, “and my pay and benefits are less than they were for a job that is harder to do with fewer resources.”
Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Kim Schroeder laments the instability that has resulted, saying Act 10 encourages teachers to be “free agents.” They can make more money outside of Milwaukee, and many teachers have left the city for other districts. “If you enter the profession making $40,000, since we can only negotiate for cost-of-living increases, after 20 years you’ll still be making the equivalent of where you started.” The lack of stability caused by teacher turnover is not good for children, he argues.
Jacobson believes top school districts like Nicolet, Whitefish Bay, and Mequon are losing talented teachers, and argues that states without collective bargaining for teachers produce an inferior educational product. “If I happened to be 25 years younger, I’d be gone,” he says. “If you want to be a public school teacher, and you have no other tie to Wisconsin, then you choose Minnesota if you have an option to work there. That’s happening right now, and it’s happening very fast.”
But Bryan Kennedy, who sits on the Glendale-River Hills School Board (and also happens to be Glendale’s mayor), notes that his school system has has no trouble attracting and retaining teachers. “While there was a rush to retire in 2011 and 2012 because of Act 10, our turnover has not been alarming, and we have literally hundreds of applicants for each vacancy,” he says. “We can choose the best of the best.”
Teacher turnover has clearly become an issue in other districts. According to John Matthews of Madison Teachers, Inc., the turnover in that city’s public school system is significant. In 2011 retirements numbered 184, more than double the usual number. After dropping to 92 in 2012, the number has gone up every year, with 165 retiring this year. Matthews says morale is extremely low and that many teachers in Madison are either retiring from the profession or moving to a different state to work.
Another school district, Spooner, saw 25 percent of its faculty retire, resign, or not have their contract renewed this year. Dan Beck of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, notes that the number “is above any historical number for Spooner even taking into account the turmoil created just after the passage of Act 10.”
Schroeder says MPS saw a huge wave of retirements immediately after Act 10, with more than 700 leaving the district. That number dropped in the following years but remains very high, with more than 100 retiring last year (and that does not include the number of resignations). He says MPS is losing a lot of teachers to other districts.
Meanwhile, not as many people are entering the profession. UW-Milwaukee’s School of Education has seen a 23 percent decrease in enrollment in a five-year period from more than 3,000 in 2010 to a little more than 2,300 in 2015, according to Jeremy Page, assistant dean of student services in the School of Education. Similarly, figures from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction show there has been a drop in the number of students statewide completing an Education Preparation Program, from 4,298 in 2011-12 to 3,965 in 2012-13.
Gov. Scott Walker and the state legislature may themselves have concerns about a reduction of teaching candidates. Their proposed budget would have allowed teachers with only a bachelor’s degree to teach core academic subjects including English and math, but the provision was ultimately dropped. Still, the budget relaxed requirements for technical education teachers.
Bauer believes it will be increasingly difficult for this state to retain quality teachers. “When the current generation of veteran teachers leave the profession, the teaching profession will be populated by college educated professionals who make less than the average fast food restaurant manager,” he laments. “This will be devastating for the long-term health of the profession.”