Who Moved My Teachers?

By Caldwell, Patrick | Mother Jones, March 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Who Moved My Teachers?


Caldwell, Patrick, Mother Jones


the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison never used to have trouble attracting applicants with dreams of becoming teachers. Its graduate program is ranked fourth in the country by U.S. News & World Report, and until recently, its undergraduate program in elementary education typically received between 300 and 400 applications for its 125 spots. Now, says Michael Apple, a professor in the program, it only gets about one applicant per opening.

What happened? Scott Walker became Wisconsin's governor in 2011 and promptly enacted a wide-scale rollback of unionization rights for state employees. That law, Act 10, effectively wiped out the ability of teachers and other public-sector workers to bargain collectively over salary and benefits.

Walker's assault on unions has had well-publicized effects, including an unsuccessful recall election against him, a sharp reduction in union membership, and a proliferation of anti-union legislation in other states. Unions' diminished organizing power for Democrats helped Donald Trump become the first Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin in more than 30 years. But less visible consequences have colored nearly every facet of Wisconsin society. One is a sudden and drastic teacher shortage. "The attack on teacher unions has an echo that is often invisible," Apple says. "That invisibility is many fewer teachers."

Wisconsin teachers now earn less total compensation than they did seven years ago, thanks to cuts in benefits. They face larger classes and less job security, and in some districts they've been asked to teach extra sections. Fewer people are applying to teacher education programs. One Wisconsin education student, who asked not to be named to avoid hurting his job prospects, warns that "better conditions and job security will lead some of us elsewhere."

The downturn for Wisconsin teachers is so bad that when a Minnesota public school district sent representatives to a job fair at UW-Madison's education school last fall, they made a point of boasting about the benefits their state still offered. "1 actually heard them promote having unions as a sales pitch, which 1 found interesting coming from administrators," says the student.

That Wisconsin is the front of the war on unions is particularly poignant. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (afscme), which represents public workers at all levels of government, began as an association of local workers in Madison in 1932. Twenty-seven years later, Wisconsin became the first state to recognize state government employee unions. But when Walker signed Act 10 on March 11,2011, that long chapter of progressivism came to an end and the state became a radical experiment in the opposite direction.

The battle over the law was as dramatic as its effects: The entire 14-person Democratic caucus in the state Senate fled to Illinois in a bid to prevent it from passing, and about 100,000 union advocates demonstrated, with some camping in the hallways of the Capitol and singing union anthems. Teachers protested by calling in sick, and schools were forced to close.

In the end, it wasn't enough. Act 10 prevailed and other conservative state governments soon followed with their own anti-union legislation. It attacked public-sector unions from a variety of angles. Wisconsin workers can no longer negotiate to improve their health or retirement benefits. Raises can't exceed the rate of inflation. Job-security measures like tenure were tossed aside, and managers were given the freedom to fire employees at will. Dues are no longer deducted directly from paychecks, forcing public-sector unions to track down members individually to raise funds.

At the time, Walker sold Act 10 as a way to close a $3.6 billion budget gap. But there was never much question that the real motivation was to hobble liberal causes. A video later surfaced showing Walker hobnobbing with billionaire donor Diane Hendricks, founder and chairwoman of Wisconsin-based ABC Supply, two weeks after taking office. …

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