Teachers in Wisconsin are just as divided as the state over Gov. Scott Walker’s restrictions on collective bargaining for unions and cuts to benefits.
MILWAUKEE — Milton Bond, standing a bulky 6 foot-4 and with a presence to match, stood among supporters in the pouring rain at a Recall Walker rally not long ago.
The 48-year-old high school science teacher said he is scared for his students in the Milwaukee School District. Here, in the largest school district in the state, 27% of his students live in poverty and 10% are homeless.
“A lot of times, the only stability they have is school,” he said.
He says that could soon change.
In Milwaukee, many teachers are angry with Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 budget-repair bill that he passed with fellow legislative Republicans last year. The collective bargaining restrictions imposed by the bill mean a larger chunk of teacher paychecks in the future will go toward health insurance and pension payments — equivalent to a significant cut in pay.
But Bond says he’s most concerned for his students. Wisconsin’s education system also took an $800 million cut in state aid. Act 10’s policies should eventually offset some of those cuts, but because Milwaukee teachers renegotiated their contract with the school district just before the law took effect, the classrooms in Milwaukee have taken the hardest initial hits.
The lack of funding means enrichment programs such as art and music are often being cut, and class sizes have progressively gotten larger. Bond says his classes next year will average 45 students.
Kathy Vincent is a specialist instructor at Merton Community School District in Milwaukee, where outcomes of the new law have already occurred. Vincent says she feels more vulnerable without the protection of a union for collective bargaining purposes.
“We didn’t go into this profession because it’s a job,” she said. “It’s our calling. If the lawmakers who voted on all these things walked even an hour, let alone a day in a teacher’s shoes, they wouldn’t be doing this.”
She’s seen a large number of her colleagues retire in the past year. Statewide in Wisconsin, 5,000 teachers retired in the six months following Walker’s decision — twice as many as usual during that timespan. In higher education, in the University of Wisconsin System alone over 1,000 faculty retired in June 2011, more than double the year prior.
One grade school teacher in the New Berlin School District who attends the governor’s church said she supports Act 10. She has taken an $8,000 cut in pay due to increased insurance and pension payments, but says she enjoys the freedom from union dues and applauds Walker’s approach.
“He’s done what needs to be done,” she said. “The state doesn’t have money but we feel like that’s a part of doing our part — our country as a whole is making fiscal cuts and no one wants to sacrifice. Yes it hurts, but that’s just the way it is.”
Walker’s opponent in Tuesday’s recall election, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, said if elected, he would restore collective bargaining rights for public workers if elected but would also continue to have workers pay more toward their pension and healthcare. He said he would introduce details of his plan in early 2013 in the next state budget.
“It’s my hope that the economy will recover to the point where we can start putting dollars back into education,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to fill the hole overnight, but that’s where my priority as governor is going to be.”
Bond says he is fearful if Act 10 stays in place.
“As an individual, I will be OK,” he said. “As a community and for students, I’m not so sure.”