The eight bill package, titled the “Teaching is a Profession” package, would raise the starting wage of teachers in Wisconsin and award teachers who stay in one school district for many years.
The package comes a decade after the passing of Act Ten, a proposal by then governor Scott Walker that stripped teachers and other public employees in Wisconsin of collective bargaining rights. Act Ten also contributed to the slashing of state funding to public schools.
Democratic Senator Jeff Smith of Brunswick, who helped introduce the package, says that the current teacher shortages began with the passing of Act Ten.
“Wisconsin is facing a problem for a number of reasons. Years of bad policies implemented a decade ago have driven many teachers out of this profession. The constant disparaging attacks on public education has only added to burnout among teachers, and widespread shortages. This is an issue affecting schools across the state, one that I’ve heard from rural superintendents in western Wisconsin where I serve. When it comes down to it, those most impacted by our teacher shortage are our students,” Senator Smith says.
Peggy Wirtz-Olsen is an English teacher and President of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, or WEAC, an advocacy group that pushes for funding in public schools. She says that, as the pandemic continues to affect Wisconsin schools, the package is needed now more than ever.
“Educators are at a breaking point. Students need so much, but there are not enough of us to meet their needs, and impossible demands are driving great educators out of the profession. Given the stress and exhaustion that educators are experiencing, there is no time to waste in finding solutions. Educators have brought forward their solutions to the educator shortage and this legislation shows that some of our lawmakers are listening,” Wirtz-Olsen says.
According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, the amount of students graduating with teaching degrees in Wisconsin has dropped almost 13% over the past decade.
The first bill would raise the starting salary for public teachers to match that of state legislators.
Another bill in the package would ensure that all school district employees would receive the same health care benefits as state lawmakers.
Democratic Senator LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee says that teachers do just as much work as lawmakers in Wisconsin, and deserve to be compensated as such.
“We know that between 2011 and 2021, the average teachers benefits have dropped by 13%. A double digits cut to benefits like health insurance is a slap in the face when Republican politicians were clamoring for teachers to get back to work into the classroom before vaccinations were even given to everybody. And may I add that that is something that our state legislature didn’t even do themselves,” Senator Johnson says.
Senator Chis Larson of Milwaukee says the average starting salary for a public school teacher in Wisconsin is around $39,000. The average legislator salary in Wisconsin is over $50,000.
Additionally, the package also contains a bill to provide a $7,000 bonus to any teacher who stays within the same school district for more than five years. Teachers would also be eligible for an additional bonus every five years after that.
Senator Larson says that this is to help teachers dedicate themselves to their students and to make life-long connections with their students.
“There are some school districts where the average teacher has been there 6 years. And then you have others on the high end where the average is 18 years. Unfortunately, across the board that number is declining, so being able to have teachers in classrooms continuously means those teachers are going to be dedicated to those kids long term,” Senator Larson says.
The bill package would also raise the wage school districts pay their student teachers to at least $15 an hour. Student teachers do not currently get paid, as it is considered a part of their school curriculum.
While there has not been any estimate for how much these bills would cost, the Democratic lawmakers say that the burden would not fall on the individual school districts, and that funding for the bills could be made by cutting back private school vouchers, or utilizing the state’s budget surplus.
Other bills in the package include ensuring that teachers are given paid preparation time every day, mandate an educator be present on school boards, and create a student loan forgiveness program for educators who graduate from the UW system.
Michael Jones is the President of Madison Teachers Incorporated, Madison’s teacher union. He says that he is happy for the bill, but feels that some school district employees may be left out.
“I think not just our teachers, one thing we really need to talk about is our hourly staff: our custodians, teaching assistants, secretarial staff, food service, all the folks that really make a school building function properly. It’s not just uplifting one group, we really have to make sure we are lifting everyone up.But anything that can help empower and help people stay in the profession, make people feel valued, and money is one of those factors, is helpful,” Jones says.
Meanwhile, state Republicans are working on their own education bills, creating what they call the parent bill of rights. The Capital Times reported last week the Republican package contained a bill that would allow parents to sue a school or district under certain circumstances. Under the bill, parents would have the authority to determine the names and pronouns used for a child at school, and what instructional material may be taught.
Senator Larson says that his bill package is not a response to the Republican’s bill package, and says that he believes the bill package will be able to receive bipartisan support.
The bill package is currently circulating for co-sponsorship.
Photo courtesy: Nate Wegehaupt / WORT News Team