Wisconsin’s Act 10 revisited: Budget crisis averted, but teaching shortage looms

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MILWAUKEE -- The piles of student homework keep Kelly O’Keefe-Boettcher at the dinner table for an extra hour per night.

The 17-year veteran English teacher at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee says her class sizes have increased dramatically since the 2011 law known as Act 10 passed. She points to that as proof that the law, which eliminated a state budget deficit, has not been good to teachers – or to students.

Kelly O’Keefe-Boettscher

Kelly O’Keefe-Boettcher

“That’s the threat to education. How long can teachers keep this up?” O’Keefe-Boettcher asked, pointing to the homework from her classes, which she says all include more than 30 students. “This isn’t my students’ fault. Students didn’t create Act 10."

The fury has died down in the five years since Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans introduced the most controversial legislation in state history, but the impacts are now playing out in living rooms and classrooms, union halls and the state Capitol.

Governor Scott Walker

Governor Scott Walker

On February 14th, 2011, with the state facing a $3.6 billion shortfall, Walker and fellow Republicans brought forward a budget repair bill.  The legislation called for major cuts in state aid to school districts and, to limit the impact, would allow districts to force their employees to pay for portions of their health insurance and pensions. Most controversially, it would eliminate many collective bargaining rights for most public employees.

All 14 Senate Democrats fled the state and thousands of protesters descended on the state Capitol during the four-week stalemate over the bill. The legislation eventually passed and Walker signed it into law.

In interviews, Milwaukee-area school administrators told FOX6 News that they have used measures allowed by Act 10 to offset cuts to state aid. In many cases, districts have instituted salary freezes, changed health insurance plans, and created merit pay programs that previous union contracts wouldn’t have allowed.

“Have we been able to utilize the nuances of the Act 10 legislation to help us bridge financial gaps? Absolutely,” said Dr. Demond Means, superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville School District. “Do we think that’s a long-term fix to school finance? Absolutely not.”

Mequon-Thiensville School District

Mequon-Thiensville School District

Concerns over pay

Means said his district’s two-year-old merit pay program – which combines incentives for meeting district-wide objectives, plus an option for teachers based on their individual achievements – has increased the average teacher’s pay by 4.6 percent this year.

State law allows districts without the merit pay system to increase pay by just 1.5 percent, he said.

O’Keefe-Boettcher’s salary has been frozen since 2012, and she estimated that the increased health insurance and pension payments have cost her $8,000-$10,000 a year. Her husband is also a Rufus King teacher.

"I have a teacher friend who’s an Uber driver, I have a teacher friend who’s a bartender in the summer," she said. "I’m very fortunate in that we haven’t had to do that."

The examples show that Act 10’s impacts vary district-by-district, said Rob Henken, president of the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum.

“What we can say for certain is, school districts across the region and the state have been able to reap savings by changing their fringe-benefits structure,” he said. “What we can’t say as conclusively is whether those savings have put them in a better stead than if the original cuts to state aides had not occurred.”

Teacher shortage looming?

In the five years since Act 10 became law, Wisconsin school districts have experienced a dramatic decline in the number of applicants for each teacher vacancy.

Dr. Demond Means

Dr. Demond Means

In 2015, there were an average of 3.2 candidates per vacancy, down from 6.6 candidates in 2012, according to Wisconsin Education Career Access Network data provided by Means.

In the Mequon-Thiensville, the district has an average of 16.9 applicants per vacancy, down from 31 applicants in 2012, the data indicate.

"I think Act 10 has hurt the image of our profession," Means said. "I think that the consternation and the conflict that people saw in our state five years ago has had an impact on morale, on people’s view on our profession."

A forthcoming study from the Public Policy Forum will show that there has been a drop-off in enrollment at Wisconsin's teaching colleges, Henken said. Other states have also seen a similar decline in their teaching pipelines, he said.

Union membership in Wisconsin

Union membership in Wisconsin

Act 10 has had a much clearer impact on public-sector unions, which have consolidated and laid off employees. The 2011 legislation -- combined with the 2015 right-to-work law -- have sent Wisconsin union membership plummeting, from 14.2 percent of the workforce when Walker took office to 8.3 percent last year.

"That’s not what it was about," said Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine. "Municipalities and school districts are able to actually do what they need to do to provide education to the students and services to the community without coming back and hammering the taxpayer again."

Impact on the Capitol

Of the 129 lawmakers who were in the Legislature for the debate, 70 remain today, according to a FOX6 News analysis. That includes 50 of the 96 Assembly members -- eight of whom have moved to the Senate -- and 20 of the 33 senators.

Four senators with a combined 125 years of experienced retired in 2014, with all of them blaming the increased partisanship at the Capitol.

"It’s a pretty divisive place right now," said former Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville. "People are still cordial to each other – they say hello, how’s the family, and all that – but nobody’s interested in working on issues, unless you’re in the majority part."

Wanggaard called the assertion "absolutely not true" for him, as he pointed to a whiteboard on his office wall that lists several bills, some of which he's co-sponsoring with Democrats.

Three senators were defeated in recall elections in the wake of Act 10. Wanggaard was one of them, but later regained his seat.

Through a spokeswoman, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald declined to comment for the story.

The future

School administrators remain concerned about their budgets because Act 10 provided only short-term relief from state cuts, Means said.

"Act 10 just kicks the can down the road," he said. "The larger conversation we need to have is how we’re going to insert more money into K-12 education across our state."

In his State of the State address this year, Walker began pushing for changes to state employees' health insurance plans. Any savings would mean additional funding for schools, he said.

The Legislature has not yet acted on the idea.

O'Keefe-Boettcher, who said she believed Wisconsin would recover from what she sees as the negative impacts of the legislation, was unsure whether she would become a teacher in today's climate.

"I don’t know," she said. "I'd like to think that I would’ve -- that my idealism would’ve been that strong -- but that’s a tough choice for young teachers right now."

28 comments

  • gordon gecho

    The State down south from us once known as Illinois has unfunded pension in the billions. Act 10 put a stop to the blank checks given to the school districts via the taxpayers in WI to save them from themselves. The school districts have a lot more money now and are hoarding it because they can. If there is a teacher shortage it’s because schools don’t want to pay, simple. Teachers should get paid a decent salary but the ones that are making 80K probably need to retire. Over 6,000 teachers in the Illinois are making 6 figures in retirement which is bankrupting the system. Schools need to strike a balance between paying good teachers well and keeping taxes low.

    • Doug

      Gordon Gecho, Wow the lack of information is stunning. WI’s retirement system was fully funded prior to Act10. School districts are not “hoarding money” they have no money. The IL retirement system is COMPLETELY different than Wisconsin’s, where retirees bear a LOT of the risk. No COLAs, no free health care. Try educating yourself. etf.wi.gov

      • willy

        “Under either scenario, hundreds of school districts saved millions, which helped them absorb the blow of reduced tax revenue,” according to the EAG report. “Those savings would not have occurred without Act 10.

        “The bottom line is that Act 10 allows school boards to take control of their budgets without union interference and act in the best interest of their students.”

  • buzz

    arent teachers off during the summer? why wouldnt your friend take a summer job? when a referendum failed in my city we were called hicks by the teachers, that goes to show you their thought process, about time they get reigned in,

  • Realistic Randi

    A couple of notes: Districts with the merit pay system that rewards good teaching are able to increase teacher pay more than 1.5%. MPS has CHOSEN not to use a merit pay system. Also, the first teacher who complained about work should be relieved to know that the Pulaski/Carmen partnership will offer about 1,000 new openings for students. Finally, let’s put this in perspective. She is complaining about ONE HOUR of additional work each day. That is it. Let me be sure to write down her name so that my child never has her as a teacher. I definitely don’t want that negative attitude and poor work ethic passed on to my child.

    • gordon ghecho

      Good point. They also complain that they are contributing extra to a pension that they will eventually receive thanks to act 10.

      • Doug

        Again Gordon the ignorance is stunning. WRS wasn’t in any danger. Act10 took 7 – 15% take home pay away from public employees – do you think that has anything to do with the poor economic record under the Republican policies. They’ve had five years of total control — shouldn’t we be swimming in high paying jobs?

  • Angie

    It is becoming evident to me that many teachers care far more about their financial status and benefits than the children whom they teach. And then they wonder why we send our children to charter schools and voucher school where the passion of the teachers for our precious kids is a priority.

    • greg

      You would too if you had to go to the required schooling of 4 to 6 years, had 60 to 70k in student debt and made the equivelent of 12$ a hour take home after your student loans were paid. Then to be told you have to work another hour a day unpaid when your already working 9 to 10 hours a day. By the way not only is the hour you work extra not going to be paid, but the last few years you haven’t got a pay raise, not even if you furthered your education.

      • buzz

        well greg i never saw a teacher work 10 hours a day and also in your calculations did you figure in all the days off for teacher in service, teacher work days etc.the previous person was right teachers only care about the money not the students! if these teachers are so underpaid why do we see bmw, lexus etc. in the parking lot??

      • greg

        Most teachers work 8 hours, and have additional duties mandated such as outside supervison after school. Many teachers also do afterschool activities/study time. If you have a bunch of kids that don’t turn in their work and are failing often times the teacher has to stay after to give the students time to get their work in since failing them is not a option. Then a teacher comes home and has to grade all their classes work if they don’t stay at school to do it. Most teachers teach 4 to 6 classes a day of 30+ kids, thats potentially 120 to 180 different peices of homework that has to be looked at and graded in one day. Then all the time to prep for the next day as well. If you think all teachers do is show up, talk to some kids for 8 hours then go home your sorely mistaken.
        Inservice days require teachers to be at school and sit in training, kids have off, teachers do not. Teacher work days are given to get cought up on work, however if you wait until that day to do everything you wont make it.

        If all teachers cared about was money 90% of them would have quit already. Teachers teach because thats what they want to do. I would never put up with the work envoirment, problematic students/parents, no pay raises, long hours, excessive added duties and 60K in student loans to make 28K a year after deductions and student loan payments.

        The median elementary school teacher salary in milwaukee is 52K a year. After taxes and deductions you would be lucky to see 35K take home. If you have student debt (which virtually all teachers have for the first 10 to 15 years of their career) you have to pay 600 to 700 a month on the low end. Thats 1,100 take home pay every two weeks assuming a 700 a month student loan. The average house in milwaukee costs 130K and with property tax/insurance/gas electric your at a minimum of 1,100 a month. That leaves you 1,100 for a car payment, food, daily expenses. If you buy a nice house in a decent area your going to be much higher than that. The average BMW sells for over 50K new which is over a 850$ a month payment plus insurance with 10% down. so if your seeing teachers driving high end cars either their signficant other bought it for them, they are foolish with their money, or they are an administrator that makes more than a teacher.

        When it comes down to it my question for you and other people that think teachers care about money, If teachers are so well paid and have a easy job, whats stopping anyone including you from going to school for 4 to 6 years to get a degree thats not worth the paper its printed on outside of being a teacher, and work 50 to 60 hours a week for no overtime, and babysitting other peoples out of control children all day while being told your overpaid, under worked, under educated, and incompetent at your job.

      • Jeff

        That was there choice. Nobody forced anyone to go to college become a teacher. They only work 9 months of the year.

  • greg

    Teachers are required to have advanced degrees that in no way are paid for by the state/local governement to even become a teacher. Then they are required to do continuing education at their own expense most of the time. This puts most teachers in a position of barely being able to afford to pay bills. A 50K a year job becomes 20 to 23K a year takehome, requires 4 to 6 years of schooling to get into, and then ontop of all of that you have to contantly teach overloaded classes, deal with no funding, and frozen wages.

    I don’t understand why people have such a hard time accepting teachers making decent money? Go out and get a bachelors or masters degree at 60 to 100K in student debt, deal with overloaded class rooms and parents that want to blame the teachers all the time, all for 1,700 to 2000 a month take home. Thats only 600$ more a month than someone who worked at walmart full time.

    • Rational Randi

      @Greg: The problem is that the only solution you offer is to increase wages and benefits. Let’s trace thr problems back and find real solutions that might require a little more thought. (1) Teachers are required to have advanced degrees. This is unnecessary. Advanced degrees mean that YOU know how to go to school, not that you know how to teach. So, why do we require it? Because the entire educational system, from pre K to PHD is tied together. Public education and universities have an unhealthy codependency. There are perfectly good, in fact, GREAT, potential teachers with lesser education that our system thwarts regularly. (2) Continuing education at own expense. First, almost all continuing education needs could be addressed via large group in services without credits. It would cost less and benefit more. And it’s how any successful large company ensures it’s people are trained. Second, if cost is the real problem, then we really should go look at #1 again. There is no need for postsecondary credits to cost as much as they do. (3) Overloaded classes and no funding? Then stop complaining about charter schools. Many of them do significantly more with less state money per student. They are also bringing money back into the system. You would be shocked how many of their students returned to the public system from private/voucher schools. Wait…i can hear you complaining now…”BUT..THEY GET ONLY GOOD STUDENTS.” No…they just handle discipline more effectively. And before you complain again…i said “discipline” not “expulsion”. You know why the traditional public school system dislikes charters? Because they are a threat to #1 and #2. Now lets get back on track… (4) Remember that ONE HOUR of additional work that the teacher in the story complained about? Maybe it’s time to reassess HOW we are teaching. She and/or a curriculum team decided that homework was necessary. If it’s taking her that long to grade it, how long does it take for thr kids to do it? And then we expect them to be involved in extracurricular, etc. And is it working? Or are we just producing more students who will become part of that codependent educational system we discussed earlier?

      • greg

        Most of what teachers learn in school has to deal with how to teach children in the manner that is inline with what the state requests, meet learning targets, and pass mandated tests. The state and federal governments own requirements for what teachers have to teach and how they have to teach is whats responsible for teachers needing the level of education they have now. Some people are natural born teachers and can teach others without ever having a degree, this is true. However those people will not be able to meet the state and federal guidelines for the performance of their students without extensive training on what those are are how to achieve them. Not to mention those people would still be better teachers with the education than without it. You must not be familiar with what modern teachers have to go through inorder to be a licensed teacher in this state. My g/f is an Art teacher at a high school and has had more classes dealing with how childrens brains work then a psycologist. She has had hundreds of hours of how to write lesson plans, meet learning targets, staying compliant with state requirements, etc. She has served a ton of time as a teachers assistant as well. So exactly how is any of that “not have anything to do with how to teach, and just how to go to school”?

        Fixing a budget by employing less qualified people with less pay is in no way a fix a problem. Anytime there is a teacher shortage it is because there is pay /work conditions/ benefits issues. Hiring people with minimal qualifications (and no student debt) to fill vacancies at the same pay rate as highly educated teachers will just force more teachers out to other areas that value education.

        The reality is very few people are going to put up with 30+ kids a class, constant parents complaining about their kids not passing classes when they don’t put in effort, constant out of pocket expenses, no pay raises, added duties, budgest cuts, lay offs, etc on 12$ a hour take home. 50K a year job after taxes and deductions is 35K take home a year if your lucky. Add another 600 to 700 a month in student loans, cost of additonal education required to have your job, and money towards supplies since budgets are so tight in many schools to have a functional class room you need to buy your own supplies, and your down to 24 to 28K a year of usable income. All that for working 50 to 60 hours a week during the school year, no overtime potential, no raise, and people telling you your overpaid. Thats 1,075$ a paycheck take home on the high end. A worker making 12$ a hour takes home 720$ after deductions for full time work, and if they can get overtime they will make as much as a teacher does take home. There is a serious problem with this.

    • Laurie D

      Is an advanced degree really a requirement to be a teacher? I have family members who are MPS teachers, one recently got his masters after several years of being a teacher. The reason he did that was because teachers with masters get a higher salary than those without a masters, not because it was a requirement. The other thing you fail to mention is that a teachers $60,000 a year job is based on a 9 month year, not a 12 month year, so recalculate and it is a much higher, not lower salary than a walmart worker.

  • CYNIC

    Wait, so MPS doesn’t adopt the Act 10 changes because they shoved through an 11th-hour union deal, and now they’re complaining things aren’t working out? They’re surprised that more teachers aren’t flocking to MPS? I wonder why you don’t hear ANY of the surrounding counties complaining, or any other districts except the few who chose to do the same thing MPS did, complaing about Act 10? Way to go Fox, groundbreaking stuff here.

  • Fred

    I have the utmost respect for teachers and appreciate that they choose their profession. It isn’t a secret that teachers don’t become millionaires on their salary and I understand why there are less applicants for the jobs these days. But the teachers are not alone. Almost every large corporation cut wages and downsized their workforce after the crash of 2008. Many who kept their jobs, myself included, are now asked to do more for less. And thanks to Obamacaremy insurance is now crap and i have to pay more for less coverage and higher deductable when I used to have what i thought was the best insurance around.

  • Laurie D

    Wow, teachers are pathetic whiners. What about nurses who also go to school for 4 years and graduate with debt, only to take jobs where their salaries are capped and they make as much money after 25 years of experience as their counterpart who just graduated 5 years ago? Some of these positions are salaried and require work from home as well. I have been averaging 60 hours of work a week with only 40 of those being paid. I would love to only have to work for 1 hour from home. I have no government pension either, I have to contribute to my 401K if I want to retire and get still have an income. I think that it is time for teachers to stop thinking that they are some how superior to every profession because they are educators. When you calculate that they are making an annual salary equal to mine but are doing it in a 9 month vs 12 month year it is hard to feel sorry for them. A lot of us choose to give back to society with our career choices but we don’t choose to constantly whine about it.

    • Mara

      12 months? So you don’t get any paid vacation or holidays? Most professionals who have the same level of education as a teacher get 3-4 weeks paid vacation (after a couple of years) and 5-10 paid holidays. Yes, teachers do get more time off, but to act like most people with a degree work 12 months when it is more like 11 or 10.5 is kind of stretching it.

    • Mara

      Also I find it a bit ironic that you are calling this teacher a whiner when your entire post seems to be complaining about how bad you have it.

  • Tommy C

    Act 10 did not hurt the image of the public school teaching profession, it was the hysterical, disgusting behaviour some union members chose to exhibit in protest to it. Can you imagine how public school educators would be viewed today if instead they said yes, we should pay more for our health insurance (even if it is still less than the average Wisconsin taxpayer), and yes, we should contribute SOMETHING to our own retirement?

  • Big Man

    Get rid of the teacher’s union. Problem solved. Bunch of whining crybabies. They never have enough money. GET A PART TIME JOB!!!!

  • anyonebuthillaryorbernie

    Another “LEFTY” slanted story By FOXNOW6 AND THEO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • John Higgins

    I am a teacher in Florida and I’m considering relocating to teach in Wisconsin. As I continue working on my second masters degree, it is a little depressing to consider my take-home pay and how that might be even less in Wisconsin. However, I chose my profession and I receive a great deal of satisfaction from the “teaching” parts of my job. I knew the pay-scale before I became a teacher, so I knew that I shouldn’t be going heavily in debt for my education. My student loans were paid off during my first two years of teaching. I’m frugal with my income and I live within my means. Through buying used cars, spending sensibly on entertainment, and shopping around for deals, I live comfortably. The day I really need a higher salary is the day I will leave the classroom and enter the private sector. I’m not going to whine or protest for a higher salary. In my comment I would like to add one thing for all of the negative things I’m reading in reference to teachers on here, though. I have nine years of college. I teach your children. I sincerely take an interest in what I do. All you have to do is ask me if you need anything from me in regard to your child’s education. Being a teacher isn’t just my job! It is my profession and my “life.” In the current political strife revolving around education across our country, teachers are often given a very negative wrap. All I am asking for you folks out there that have such a negative view of teachers is that you don’t lump us all into the same category. You will see me working on the days when teachers picket. You won’t see me posting about how I “deserve” or am “entitled” to a higher salary. (We should all be paid more! lol) I would just like to hear a little appreciation once in a while when I’m out in the community or on-line. I’m not saying educators even deserve more appreciation than other occupations. I’m just saying that I wish so many people on-line and in the community didn’t have such a low opinion of what I do.

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