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Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

Will Anyone Want to Teach in Wisconsin?

Walker's policies could damage public education for the next generation

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Milwaukee-area teachers say they would not encourage anyone to pursue a career in education, according to a new survey conducted by the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), which represents educators across the state.

Three-fourths of the 3,800 educators surveyed said morale has gotten worse since February, when Gov. Scott Walker introduced a bill that gutted public employees' bargaining rights and required them to pay more into their health care and pension benefits.

In contrast, a mere 5.6% of surveyed teachers, counselors, library media specialists and support staff said that morale has improved. That's in stark contrast to the governor's assertion that his "tools" are "working."

The survey polled educators in the metro Milwaukee area, excluding Milwaukee Public Schools teachers and staff.

After Walker's collective bargaining bill was passed by the Republican-led Legislature, Walker and lawmakers handed public schools $1.6 billion in cuts, thanks to reduced funding and strict property tax caps that limit the amount of local revenue school districts can generate.

According to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), 97% of the state's 424 school districts will receive less school aid for the 2011-2012 school year than they did in the previous year. The median decrease was 9.98%.

Teaching 'On the Brink of Some Very Serious Trouble
'

WEAC's survey turned up widespread discontent among education professionals:

  • 78% said that schools were not better off this year
  • 76% said that their district had fewer resources this year to meet the needs of all children as individuals
  • 72% said they would not encourage potential teachers to pursue a career in education
  • 57% said they considered leaving the profession in the past year
  • 55% are concerned or very concerned about their job security
  • 77% say they are more stressed because of their job insecurity

Taken together, Walker's education policies are damaging the education profession now and in the coming years, said Ted Kraig, UniServ Director of Council No. 10 of WEAC.

"The teaching profession is on the brink of some very serious trouble," Kraig said.

He said Wisconsin is going in the opposite direction of countries with high-quality education systems, where teaching is a desirable profession that attracts top-notch college students.

"We're not going to be drawing from the top 10% of students when this is an incredibly put-upon, undesirable profession, given everything that Walker is doing to it," Kraig said.

He said that lowered morale, along with reduced resources and the undesirability of teaching as a career, will damage Wisconsin's public education system in the long run.

"Research shows that inside the walls of the school, the most important factor is the quality of the teacher," Kraig said. "If teachers are overwhelmingly saying, 'This is not sustainable, this makes me really question whether I want to be in this profession, I wouldn't recommend that anybody else get into it,' we need to take that seriously."

DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper said state Superintendent Tony Evers had opposed Walker's education policies and budget.

"It's been a very difficult year for educators in general," Gasper said. "While many of them feel or have felt that they're sort of under attack, they were the ones who still reported to school on Sept. 1 and were there for the students and are doing standout jobs in providing education to our children."

He said Walker's reforms could discourage a new generation from becoming public school teachers.

"But teaching is an incredibly rewarding profession," Gasper said. "We must continue to invest in education. We have to keep trying to do things to attract the best and brightest to become teachers. That's what we need in order for our children to succeed."


Fewer Teachers, Bigger Class Sizes

WEAC's study is the second survey demonstrating the impact of Walker's collective bargaining "tools" and $1.6 billion funding cut on the state's public schools.

Last month, the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators (WASDA) survey, analyzed by the state DPI, found that public schools are employing 3,368 fewer educators and staff this year, compared to the 2010-2011 school year employment levels. That translates to 1,655 fewer teachers, 172 fewer administrators, 765 fewer aides and 776 fewer support staff. About 83% of school districts responded to WASDA's survey, but it correlates with 4,000 public school jobs lost statewide this year, as estimated by the state Department of Workforce Development.

Nine out of 10 students attend a district with a net loss of staffing in one of four areas surveyed and 59% of districts said they have increased class sizes for some grade levels.

Two-thirds of responding districts said that they will make the same or deeper cuts in the next school year, since federal stimulus funding will have run out, big savings from Walker's "tools" will have been exhausted and high levels of retirements have already been taken.

Also on the horizon is a potential cut of federal funds for public education in the next year, due to the inability of the congressional "super committee" to strike a deal in November.

"We haven't heard anything specific or the extent or amount of the cuts," said DPI's Gasper. "That's sort of still in play."

WASDA Executive Director Miles Turner said Walker's education policy is part of a long-term trend of decreased funding for public education, which began in the Tommy Thompson administration with revenue caps and the qualified economic offer (QEO) for teachers. As a result, districts have resorted to cutting employees and course offerings and increasing class sizes.

"I sometimes wonder if the citizens of Wisconsin understand what's happening to their public education system," Turner said. "That's not just current [policies]. It's also historical and future [policies]."

Walker's office did not respond to the Shepherd's request for comment on this article. But the governor has claimed that his "tools" haven't decreased the quality of public education and have reduced statewide property tax levies for schools by 1%.

But WASDA's Turner said that the goal of public education policy shouldn't be property tax relief. He said that state policy-makers need to take a look at all sources of revenue for education funding, including potentially raising the sales tax 1%, to bring it up to the national average and raise $1 billion for schools.

"Why are we looking at property tax relief at the expense of local public schools when there might be better sources of revenue to fund schools and save our programs and serve our children?" Turner said.

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