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Congressman Mark Pocan

Representing the 2nd District of Wisconsin

Pocan Op-Ed: Where Have All The Teachers Gone?

Nov 3, 2015
In The News

Madison 365

By Rep. Mark Pocan 

There has been an onslaught of data showing many states around the country from California to Indiana are in desperate need of teachers. Wisconsin is no stranger to this teacher shortage. In August, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a piece with a striking headline: “School districts scramble to find teachers for open positions.” Many districts across Wisconsin are making last ditch efforts to fill teaching slots for this upcoming school year.

As someone who cares deeply about our public education system, this is particularly concerning, so I started to delve deeper into Wisconsin’s teacher shortage to search for some answers.

Data obtained from the University of Wisconsin-Madison show the university’s School of Education has seen more than a 52% decline in applications between the ’10-11 and ’14-’15 school years. In 2010, there were 329 applicants to the school of education, for ’14-’15 there were 155.

The picture of this teacher shortage is even starker at the two largest education schools in Milwaukee. Both Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have reported significant drops in enrollment in their teaching programs. Marquette University’s enrollment dropped from 445 students in 2010 to 385 in 2014. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Education’s enrollment dropped from 2,135 in 2010 to 1,516 in 2014.

The question then becomes, why is there a sudden drop off in teachers?

Over the last few years polling shows teachers have become increasingly disillusioned about their jobs and the field of education as a whole.

Educators cite low pay, under resourced schools, increased testing requirements, loss of job protections, and unfair teacher evaluations as contributing factors to low morale. It’s no surprise schools with budgetary problems are seeing teacher shortages. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker’s K-12 budget, which proposes cutting $150 per pupil in coming school year, is certainly not helping with the teacher shortage.

Neither is passing policies politically hostile to teachers and the unions that help them organize, like Wisconsin’s Act 10 passed in 2011.

As a member of the State Assembly, I was deeply involved in opposing Act 10. For many years now, unions comprised of hardworking individuals have relied on the strength of their members to afford workers access to basic middle class benefits. Act 10 eliminated the rights of workers, including teachers, to collectively bargain for pay and benefits. This legislation was a targeted assault on unions and undermined teachers and other public employees who pride themselves on their service to their students and the state.

But Governor Walker and Republicans did not stop there. In recent years, the budget crunch has continued with teachers’ salaries declining 2.1% since 2000 when adjusted for inflation according to data from 2013. In contrast, neighboring Minnesota saw their salaries increase by 3.3%. Meanwhile, it’s worth mentioning again that funding for students has been cut to the tune of $150 per pupil over the next few years and precious funding for our public schools is being taken from public schools for taxpayer funded voucher programs.

During the 2011-’12 academic year, Governor Walker cut spending on health and pension benefits for public employees, including teachers, by $287 million. In the state budget, Wisconsin’s Republicans capped how much schools can raise through property taxes. A more recent budget proposal from state Republicans even suggested eliminating requirements that teachers have certain academic credentials. It should not come as a surprise that all of this has led to teachers in Wisconsin feeling undermined.

National trends have been just as disturbing. The toxic rhetoric surrounding public employees and especially teachers has reached new levels. In August, Governor Chris Christie discussed his desire to punch those affiliated with teachers unions in the face. During the debate on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congressional Republicans proposed eviscerating public school funding and putting our teachers in the impossible situation of having to do more with less, year after year.

And the result of these actions:

Cutting teachers ability to bargain for fair wages + Reducing teacher pensions + Increased class sizes and demands on teachers + Damaging anti-teacher rhetoric= LESS TEACHERS.

To make matters worse, politicians don’t seem to be listening to educators about the policies affecting their classrooms. In August, a group of over 35 southern Wisconsin principals wrote to Governor Walker to tell him how his budget cuts are harming their schools. Teachers and others in the education field are reaching out to politicians to tell them what they need to best serve their students. Their concerns are falling on deaf ears.

What’s happening in Wisconsin is a bellwether for what’s going on across the country. If we continue to undermine the teaching profession by reducing teacher pay and benefits, cutting funding from public education, and talking about our teachers with such hostility, we will lose much needed talent in our schools. Kids across the country deserve well-qualified teachers who are fairly compensated for all the time, energy, and dedication they put into their profession. Until we foster environments where teachers are respected and given the resources that they need, we cannot act surprised when we have a teacher shortage.