Sunday, March 2, 2014

Walker's Act 10 Devalues Teaching in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Teacher Value Not Adding Up
My first teaching contract 19 years ago at a Midwest Catholic high school grossed $15,000. My retirement benefits consisted of a whopping $500 401K. Cutting into my take-home pay was a $1500 annual premium for an inadequate health insurance plan with a high deductible and 80-20 coverage on remaining family medical bills.

Money aside, I was a good Christian soldier. I taught a full load with 3 or more preps, moderated the school newspaper, ran the service program, coached baseball, drove the school bus to athletic events, and volunteered for all kinds of school activities.

Considering money, I was a naive Christian soldier. I did not think finances mattered all that much. After growing up on the lower rim of the middle class, the $15 grand I grossed in my first year of teaching felt like a million dollars. When the family budget tightened as college loans came due and the family grew, I practiced my own personal “no excuses” policy and doubled down on work by milking cows in the evening and on weekends, painting houses in the summer, and working a variety of odd jobs. While many Americans were "moving on up" during the 1990’s, my wife (also an educator) and I shuffled funds around trying to survive on less-than-professional pay.

In these conditions, my teaching suffered. My professional goal of getting my masters degree by age 30 came and went. I recycled the same lesson every year. Innovation was limited to what I could concoct late at night or each morning before school. I was a resourceful teacher, but not a developing educator.

In the midst of this mess, one of my kids became seriously ill. She did a few tours in the hospital before some highly skilled and professionally-priced specialists got a handle on her condition. The medical bills mounted. Things became desperate.

So I made a desperate move. I sold my soul and left teaching for a year. I searched for funds in other fields. In the midst of this despair came some soul-saving, professional advice from my brother teaching in Wisconsin. He coaxed my wife (also an educator) and I to move to his neck of the woods, where we could earn professional pay and benefits by teaching in Wisconsin’s public school system.

With the move north, our lives took a financial one eighty. The affordable healthcare coverage alone was an immediate boom to our family budget. My wife also found a good paying teaching job in a neighboring district and our incomes steadily improved. Over a decade into our professional careers, we could finally breathe easier. We weren’t rich, but we were middle class professionals.

Under these much-improved conditions, my teaching improved. I’ve been able to ditch most of my part-time work and focus on being a professional educator. I’ve spent some of the extra time collaborating with other well-paid professionals and developing better lessons for my students. Middle class living has allowed me to read and write about curriculum, pedagogy, public school history, and current education policy (and politics). Professional pay and the promise of advancement allowed me to invest in over a dozen professional courses and pick up my masters degree. My district, school, and students have benefitted from the community investment in my professional development.

This move to a new state and professional pay, however, did not move me to a state of ignorant bliss. My journey seasoned me. I am no longer naive. I know money matters.

Thus, I am keenly aware of the detrimental effects Governor Walker’s school funding cuts are having on the professional pay of public educators around Wisconsin. Walker’s Act 10 hit my school district this school season and consequently shifted a percentage of district expenses onto the backs of public school employees.

Sunny days for district budgets are financial storms for teachers. Thanks to Walker’s new teacher taxes, I take home about 8% less (-$5039) in regular pay than I did last school year. Walker’s soldiers will argue that the new pay deductions keep put public educators, like me, inline with private sector workers, who are already chipping in similar amounts for healthcare and retirement benefits. Of course, the Walker apologists will ignore that public school educators’ earn less than comparable private sector professionals. The Walker disciples also hypocritically support Act 10 regulations that limit future negotiations for teacher pay increases to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) even though they are usually big critics of such heavy-handed regulations.

Headlines in local newspaper mislead public 
The average Wisconsin taxpayer has little understanding of how the teaching profession is being devalued. Contrary to the local paper’s misleading headline (“Teachers to see pay hike”), almost no returning teacher in my kids’ school district saw a pay raise this school season. District leaders recently imposed a teacher’s contract that fell well short of last year’s 2.07% CPI. For me, the imposed salary adjustment only covers about 5% of the Walker-imposed deductions from my pay. The $265 salary advancement given to almost every teacher was calculated by multiplying .75% by the lowest possible base wage (BA+0, $35,370). This salary adjustment was far less than the $1000 or more given by most area school districts to their teachers. To play this out, if this year’s salary adjustment becomes a pattern over the next 15 years, I’ll be a lucky guy to finish my career with the same pay I received last year. Toss in the rate of inflation, I am well past my professional peak.

Like hedge fund managers setting up a ponzi scheme, Walker and his cronies have concocted a teacher salary scheme under Act 10 so complex it takes numerous pages to explain it and so ambiguous that interpretations vary from district to district. Act 10 requires teacher salaries to now be divided into two categories--a base wage salary and a supplemental salary. In my kids’ district, the former is calculated by equating the worth of every teacher to that of a rookie teacher with only a bachelor’s degree. Thus, almost all teachers in my district, regardless of their experience and (self-funded) advanced degrees, are paid the same salary adjustment. Pay I previously earned for my experience and advanced degree is now considered to be like bonus pay (i.e.-supplementary).

I tried explaining this newfangled pay system to two financial professionals. The supplemental pay that makes up almost half of my salary is also foreign to them. Under Walker’s system, veteran teachers, like me, see around half of their pay classified as “supplemental.” Granted, annual bonuses (i.e.-supplemental pay) are attached periodically to many private sector professionals’ regular pay--but the financial professionals tell me these bonuses are usually just a small percentage of someone’s salary.

Doing an end-around on Walker’s Act 10, some local district leaders in my kids’ district promise teachers that their supplemental pay is not actually supplemental at all and teachers can rest easy and be assured that no teacher will move backwards in pay. However, under Walker’s reign, the promise of guaranteeing supplementary pay is ambiguous and certainly not binding, like a contract. A school board/superintendent or two later and teachers’ supplemental pay could be a new source of revenue for a struggling school district and/or the anti-government types.

My money experts also confirmed that percentage raises in the private sector world are almost always figured as a percentage of a professional’s total current salary. This is no longer the case for many Wisconsin public school teachers. The money pros also confirmed for me, with Act 10’s rules limiting salary negotiations to base wages and the CPI, veteran teachers’ regular pay will not keep pace with inflation.

Adding to the unfairness, districts, like mine, do not subject administrators to this base wage system. I do not begrudge administrators being paid raises as a percentage of their total current salary. However, it is ironic that those defending base wage raises on teachers continue to have raises calculated as a percentage of their total salaries.

A feeling of being shafted permeates the teaching profession in Wisconsin. Paternalistic school officials simply dismiss professional educator’s angst as entitlement thinking. On some sort of free market mission, they are determined to break teachers from desiring security. They ignore that almost all other experienced and highly educated professionals are afforded autonomy and security. They also disregard the latest research related to motivation in highly cognitive professions, like teaching. Increasingly in Walker’s new world order, important decisions are made about teachers and without teachers. A new age paternalism prevails. Along with pay, the teacher’s perspective is devalued.

Ignoring that teachers were never the problem, reformers further contend educators must be held to higher standards of accountability and perform better. Even though educational research does not support it, some districts across Wisconsin recklessly forge ahead designing (often without teacher involvement) and implementing new teacher pay plans built around complicated, unproven teacher evaluation systems that are connected to flawed valued-added testing measurements.

The aforementioned financial experts assure me private sector pay increases are almost always linked to something easily measurable, like improved sales or cost-saving initiatives. Never mind that incentivized pay plans are not backed up by educational research and good teaching and diverse learning are beyond measure, the MBAs act as if they know better than educators what is best for the teaching profession.

Act 10 has led some school leaders to act as if they have sole ownership of the local public school system. No means no, even if professional educators know better. In business-like fashion, they tell professional educators who do not agree with the new metric-driven initiatives to acquiesce or leave.

What these corporate types do not know best is how public schools are supposed to work. Government-run school districts are not private businesses. Attempts to make them such are wrong. Government schools are public entities. Local teachers, administrators, support staff, union members, coaches, board members, taxpayers, voters, parents, students, and even business owners are all stakeholders. Local school districts are owned and operated collectively.

Teacher Roots Run Deep
Complicating this collective undertaking are a large percentage of educators, like me, who are invested in local schools on many levels. I am a teacher man, taxpayer, involved constituent, coach, union leader, and parent of students in the local school district. I’ve grown roots that run deep and in many directions. I’ve connect with layers of students, their parents, colleagues, and community members.

I harbor no fantasies about the strength of these roots though. In Walker’s new world order, veteran teachers can be uprooted tomorrow. Like in deforestation, removing strong-standing and long-standing teachers can lead to enduring detrimental effects on the wider environment. Sure, cheaper and easier-to-handle saplings can replace veteran teachers, but new teachers will be planted in a less nurturing environment. To survive many school seasons, the next generation of professional teachers in Wisconsin will have to be seasoned young, impervious, and able to manage doing more, for less, and with less.

The present devaluing of the teaching profession feels like my early professional years. This devaluing of the teaching profession brings erraticism to my kids’ schools and students' lives. All the while, the scapegoating of teachers distracts communities from public education’s eight ball. For the kids’ sake, I hope the roots hold strong. Politics brought on the devaluing of educators in Wisconsin. Politics can restore educators' professional standing.


  1. Excellent points. An old friend of mine says"the fish rots from the head down." Walker and his view of "education"sure fit that.

  2. EXCELLENT summary of why I tell people, "teaching is no longer a profession." I also tell people that you really can't be a teacher forever anymore post Act 10 and they just look at me like I'm somehow way off in left field and just bitter.

    Nope, you explained perfectly why it's true.

  3. Thank you for the insightful teacher's perspective on Act 10.

  4. "... focus on being a professional educator." Exactly. Fair funding for education includes fair pay for teachers because it improves the quality of education.

    Well said.