Every year, the routine was the same. Kim Kaukl, then principal at River Valley High School in Spring Green, would gather his graduating seniors and ask them what life path they had chosen.
The graduating class was usually somewhere between 130 and 140 students and, of that group, Kaukl said 10 to 15 kids would say they planned to pursue a degree in education.
Then Act 10 happened.
“After Act 10, I had 0 until 2015, and then, I finally had one kid raise their hand,’’ said Kaukl of the controversial law introduced by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 and then passed by the state legislature.
“So almost five full years until I finally had a kid raise their hand,’’ said Kaukl. “And there were some who didn’t raise their hand who came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’m probably going into education, but I don’t want people to know that.’ That’s very sad.’
Act 10 was proposed to deal with a projected $3.6 billion state budget deficit. The law reduced collective bargaining rights for most state and municipal employees, including K-12 teachers. It also affected compensation, retirement, health insurance and sick leave of all public sector employees.
Demonstrations went on for days at the State Capitol and municipalities throughout the state, and the end result was a one-two gut punch for teachers.
Not only did they suffer losses in bargaining power, benefits and compensation, but they became demonized throughout the state, something that continues to some degree to this day.
“I think teachers then, and the ones who were there at Act 10 and still in the profession, still feel very vulnerable about what happened,’’ said Vickie Adkins, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Personnel Administrators. “They lost their voice in a lot of things and felt betrayed. Communities turned on them because I think it was easy to see public employees’ unions, teachers, as a scapegoat. And they were kind of vilified throughout that process. That hurt. That feeling of being betrayed has not gone away.’’
The third shoe to drop was a significant exodus from the teaching profession. A 2017 study by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, an independent, nonpartisan policy institute, showed that in the year prior to Act 10, the number of teachers in Wisconsin aged 55 and over who retired was at about 15%. The following school year, when Act 10 became law, the number of teachers aged 55 and older who retired rose to more than 30%. Other teachers simply left for other careers, though some teachers did return to public school classrooms as time passed.
As the years have gone on, fewer high school graduates have elected to pursue education careers, which has led to a teacher shortage throughout the state. Most who work in the education field will point to Act 10 as the direct culprit. A 2020 Wisconsin Policy Forum report said that between 2012 and 2018, students enrolling in Wisconsin teacher preparation programs dropped by more than a third (33.4%), from 11,620 students to 7,739.
While there is little doubt Act 10 played some role, the decline in those entering teacher preparation programs nationwide was more dire. While state enrollment dropped 33.4% from 2012 to 2018, average U.S. enrollment dropped 39%. As well, undergraduate enrollment for all majors during that time in the University of Wisconsin system was down 6.3%.
“How much of this is due to Act 10?’’ said Adkins of the teacher shortage. “You ask a good question because I don’t know if anybody has that answer, because how do you slice and dice and prove that this percentage of what’s happening is totally due to Act 10, to the isolation of all the other influences that are going on in the market.’’
Compensation and loss of autonomy have no doubt contributed to the teacher shortage.
According to a 2019 study by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest labor union and represents public school teachers and other support personnel, Wisconsin ranked 33rd in the country in teacher compensation.
Wisconsin teachers earned on average $51,469 in the 2017-18 school year, and teachers just starting out earned $31,181 on average, ranking 25th in the nation.
The Center for American Progress, using data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction from 2005-06 to 2016-17, found that in the 2015-2016 school year, Wisconsin teachers’ median combined salaries and benefits were $10,843 lower than they were before Act 10 passed.
And help is not on the way.
“You can look to the current state budget that’s going on in the legislature right now,’’ said Adkins.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed to give K-12 schools $1.6 billion over the next two years. But the Republican-controlled legislature instead allocated $128 million.
“So when the lack of funding comes through, then you have salaries and benefits fall and everybody has career choices, right?” said Adkins. “So we’re seeing an exit from the profession to go to private industry where they don’t have those kinds of limitations.’’
The limitations don’t stop there. Tom Pritzl, a mathematics teacher at Appleton East, noted how teachers’ voices have been narrowed when it comes to deciding what is best for students.
He spoke of a time in the 1990s when the idea of block scheduling was considered.
“At that point, not necessarily the union, but the teachers themselves jumped in and did all kinds of research and said there’s no evidence that block scheduling shows any sort of gains in student achievement,’’ he said. “They listened to that and East High School never went to block scheduling. And we actually had discussions as a staff, and the administration took part in the discussions, and we ended up not going to block scheduling.’’
Recently, however, a controversial standards-based grading system was implemented and this time, teachers’ input didn’t carry the same weight. While he praised the Appleton Area School District for its willingness to still take in teachers’ input, nonetheless, it just felt different.
“Have you ever worked with someone who, you feel like they’re asking you a question, but you feel like they’re asking you for your answer but a decision has already been made?” Pritzl said. “That’s sometimes the way we feel.”
Pritzl said he is not a fan of the new system and feels it hurts math and science programs.
“I believe that if Act 10 hadn’t happened, the same types of things might have happened with standards-based grading,’’ he said. “Where we did the research and looked at the evidence and asked if this is actually better for the students.”
The question for schools everywhere has become how to attract more teachers into the profession.
“The teacher pipeline is a very complicated pipeline,’’ said Dr. Jennifer Collins, director of the UW-Platteville school of education. “In the ’90s, we had the recession, so fewer folks were having kids so now we have fewer grads. We’ve got the smaller group of kids coming out of high school that are competing for lots of different jobs in lots of different majors — everybody wants from this smaller pool — that’s part of it,’’ she said.
To that end, UW-Platteville has become the first public school in the country in adapt the Low Repayment Assistant Program (LRAP).
“What it is essentially from the university, that we believe strongly in getting folks into the teaching pipeline,’’ she said, “and also understanding that we don’t pay teachers enough, and especially if we’re looking at teachers who want to maybe go back into smaller, rural communities that pay less than if they decided to go to a bigger suburban or urban area. How we kind of try and funnel that is try and provide some loan repayment on the backside upon graduation.
“So the way it works if they are incoming freshmen who are in the elementary and middle licensure program, as long as they start with us, graduate, get a job and start repaying their loan — and there is kind of a sliding scale on how much — we will help support repaying their loans, up until they make $48,000. And we know most of the schools around here start around $38,000, so it gives them a good couple of years of us helping us repay a portion of that. So if they make $20,000 a year, there is 100% reimbursement and as you can imagine as we get closer to that $48,000, it’s less than that. The company we work with, Ardeo Education, has told us the average payment that we could maybe expect giving back is around $500-$600, probably, a month.”
Programs like this give Kaukl, who ended up leaving the teaching profession early after Act 10 and is now the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, hope.
“We used to be able, maybe not compete with salaries, but we could put a benefits package together that was very competitive, and with the lower cost of living, show that to people and attract them to the rural area,’’ he said. “After Act 10, it was really hard to put those benefits packages together.
“It’s sad because you don’t want kids — you want kids to have an equal opportunity wherever they lay their heads at night."
The University of Wisconsin now offers a program called the Wisconsin Teacher Pledge, which is supported by $18 million in donor funds and went into effect during the 2020 fall semester. There, the school offers financial support, including in-state tuition, and covers other costs in exchange for a pledge from the students to teach for three or four years — depending on if they teach in a high-need district or teach a high-need subject area — at a pre-K through 12th-grade school in Wisconsin.
Adkins noted multiple other programs being offered at the high school and elementary levels, like Grow Your Own programs, working with a national program called Educators Rising, seeing school districts share employees for specialized subjects, offering retention bonuses and more.
“Schools are pulling out all the stops now, doing whatever they can to try and attract and retain employees,’’ she said. Which, according to Collins, can be the proverbial double-edged sword.
“I think we’re all trying to scramble to do the same thing and I feel, at some point — and this is me personally — I feel like that kind of puts us at odds with each other,’’ said Collins. “Aren’t we all trying to get the best students – to get more into schools in Wisconsin and make for better and stronger communities for the state of Wisconsin, which benefits everybody? Is there some competition because we’re all part of these different schools? Yes. But I feel like there needs to be a bigger and a grander goal to working collaboratively in trying to solve this together.”
The COVID-19 pandemic tested teachers’ limits on many fronts over the past one-and-one-half years, but Adkins said the initial fears of another mass exodus did not materialize.
“But the burnout is real and so, there’s no way you can say that didn’t have an impact on the teaching profession in terms of morale and longevity, ‘How long will I stay after this?’’’ she said. “I think we’re still kind of waiting."
“So, we got through this year. "What will it be two, three years after COVID because we're not out of it yet, right?" The jury is still out on what school districts will encounter this coming year so, long term, what impact will that have on the teaching shortages? I think it’s a wait and see.’’
While teaching during COVID-19 was much like being in a rowboat at sea, it did provide perhaps an unexpected boost for something that had been severely damaged over the previous decade — teacher appreciation.
“I’ve talked to a number of personal friends or people in communities who were that adult in the room for virtual instruction, where they had to be with their child to help get logged in or help them through whatever the teacher was doing, and it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I could never do that,’’’ said Adkins. “For a lot of community members, it’s been way too long since they were in the classroom. So, there’s the perception on some people’s part that it’s a glorified babysitter. Yeah, they’re teaching this young group, but how hard can this be? So, I think this really cracked open that perception and gave people a livestream view into, ‘Oh, that’s what teaching is.’ So I would agree that for those parents, or grandparents that were that person with the child during virtual instruction, yes, it was very enlightening.’’
Through all the fallout from Act 10, the central issue for the teaching profession may be one that was around before Act 10 even drew a breath.
“I feel the profession of teaching has never been held at the standard it should have been and it’s never been financially supported in the way that it should be,’’ said Collins, “and it doesn’t hold the value in our society that it should.’’
And until that changes, the teaching profession will likely remain encumbered.
“You can’t really attract the best and brightest students into teacher preparation programs,’’ said Adkins, “until we demonstrate we value the profession.’’
Story idea: You can reach Mike Woods at 920-246-6321 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org