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Wisconsin teachers suffer after unions decimated

New York Teacher
Thousands of angry public employees descended on the Wisconsin state Capitol in
Isaac Steiner

Thousands of angry public employees descended on the Wisconsin state Capitol in 2011 to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to strip away their collective bargaining rights.

As public employee unions brace for a ruling in the anti-union Janus v. AFSCME case before the U.S. Supreme Court, a cautionary tale is unfolding in Wisconsin.

In 2011, after a fierce public battle, Gov. Scott Walker and the state Legislature passed Act 10, which stripped public employee unions of most of their collective bargaining rights. Six years later, according to a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, teacher compensation has dropped; turnover rates have gone up; and the teaching force as a whole has become less experienced.

It’s a grim outlook for public school teachers, who no longer have a voice through collective bargaining to fight for fair pay or better working conditions.

“Teachers have lost a tremendous amount since Act 10 was enacted — not just in terms of salary and benefits, but from the perspective they no longer have the ability to take those steps needed to improve and affect the quality of education,” said Marty Richards, a consultant for the Wisconsin Education Association Trust.

Before Act 10, Wisconsin school districts contributed 100 percent to the Wisconsin Retirement System. After Act 10, the district unilaterally obligated teachers to pay half — which came out of their salaries, said Kim Kohlhaas, the president of AFT-Wisconsin. That amounted to $5,000 per teacher, she said.

The district put in place a high-deductible health care plan after Act 10 without negotiations, Kohlhaas said. That cost teachers another $5,000.

“So, in the first two years after Act 10 was enacted, teachers lost $10,000 in take-home pay,” she said.

Just one year after the passage of Act 10, teachers’ median benefits were cut by 18.6 percent and their median pay fell by 2.6 percent, according to data collected by researchers from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Median salaries and benefits continued to fall over the following four years. By the 2015–16 school year, total teacher compensation was $10,843 lower — 12.6 percent less — than before the passage of Act 10.

The report found the percentage of Wisconsin teachers who retired or left the profession jumped to 10.5 percent after the 2010–11 school year, up from 6.4 percent in the year before Act 10. Departure rates have remained high: 8.8 percent of teachers left after the 2015–16 school year.

As a result of the exodus, Wisconsin teachers have less experience on average. The percentage of teachers with fewer than five years of experience grew from 19.6 percent in the 2010–11 school year to 24.1 percent in the 2015–16 school year, according to the report.

With pay raises only available by moving to a higher-paying district, more teachers are moving between districts within the state. The percentage who moved between districts jumped from 1.3 percent before the passage of Act 10 to 3.4 percent at the end of the 2014–15 school year, according to the report.

Teachers with an in-demand specialty, such as special education or mathematics, go to districts such as Milwaukee that have a solid property tax base, says Kohlhaas.

“There’s more district-hopping to get a decent salary,” she said.

Rural districts, with less resources, can’t compete. “It’s pitting one district against another,” Richards said.

District hopping has had other consequences. “Students no longer have the same teachers every year,” Kohlhaas said. “The continuity of a school and the relationship with students is no longer there with high teacher turnover.”

In 2015, Wisconsin became a right-to-work state that bans the requirement that all workers in a bargaining unit pay dues or fair-share fees to offset the cost of union representation and services.

The labor movement’s footprint in Wisconsin has shrunk. Last year, less than half of Wisconsin’s 464 school districts had certified teachers unions, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission reported. Statewide, only 9 percent of Wisconsin workers were unionized in 2016, down from 14.1 percent in 2011.

For those who remain in public schools, the Wisconsin Education Association is a shadow of its former self.

“You can’t bargain pay or benefits or working conditions,” said Sue Whittaker, a 21-year veteran of the classroom. “Now the union is more of a professional association.”

The law has driven many teachers out of Wisconsin’s public schools and dissuaded new teaching grads from taking jobs there.

Richards has a daughter who wants to be a teacher. But, he says, after finishing her undergraduate work at Winona State University in Minnesota in 2018, she won’t be heading back home to Wisconsin, a short car ride from campus.

“My daughter is going to the state of Washington,” said Richards. “And when I ask her classmates, 99 percent are not going back to Wisconsin. Act 10 accelerated that.”