Five years ago this week, Gov. Scott Walker launched his anti-union, anti-worker campaign against the Wisconsin working class and our shared Wisconsin values.
He prompted the largest rallies ever in Madison and an aftershock that still continues in the form of ever-present crisis and chaos in our schools, communities and Wisconsin politics. Five years later, Wisconsin is now painfully aware of the damage behind the governor’s policies.
Wisconsin voters oppose school cuts
“The bottom line is the impact of these policies cannot be separated from students,” said teacher Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. “Five years later, Wisconsin has fallen below the national average for public school funding, and nearly 60 percent of voters say their public schools aren’t getting enough support from the state. At the same time, tens of millions in tax dollars continue to be used to subsidize unaccountable private schools.”
Hardworking educators unite for students
“The attempt to kill unions has failed,” Kippers said. “We are still here, rebuilding and finding new and different ways to make sure Wisconsin has highly qualified educators and stable public schools that provide opportunity to all students.
“Our hardworking educators have been under attack for five years, but they are standing stronger than ever to give our kids a great public education,” Kippers continued. “Public education is the cornerstone of strong communities, and the partnerships between our teachers, our parents and our local community leaders grow even stronger every day. Our teachers are standing up for our students, our communities and our union.”
Kippers said while others may be looking back after five years, the union is firmly focused on moving forward. “In communities across the state, local education associations have victories for their students every single day,” she said. “There is still work to do, and as the largest professional union in the state, our members are more than up to the task.”
In rural Boyceville – located in WEAC Region 1 – middle school teacher Deb Bell defines the union through the professional support and positive engagement with students and families.
“I am so excited that we are gaining membership in Boyceville and WEAC Region 1, one member at a time,” Bell said. “It takes one-on-one conversations and showing you care.”
In Boyceville, local education association reviewers provide free review of Professional Development Plans (PDPs) for WEAC members, making the requirement convenient and accessible. Bell said the member-reviewers embrace the philosophy of union – helping each other. It also provides a great opportunity for discussions about the importance of uniting for students and schools.
“We have evolved into a new union,” Bell explained. “We are still member-led, which has always been, and we are there to support our members, as we always have. What is new is that we hold Educator Effectiveness meetings, PDP trainings, meetings to discuss professional issues. Everything we do is to help members become better teachers. In turn, our students become better students. They become engineers, space researchers, doctors, teachers and more.”
More involvement from educators
La Crosse high school teacher Chad Wilkinson – in WEAC Region 4 – said he’s become more involved in the union after 2011. He knows there is good and bad these days on Wisconsin’s educational landscape. “Our school board and our community, with everything that’s happened, has been very supportive,” he said. “I know it’s rough for some teachers across the state, that’s what’s keeping me in the district.”
Wilkinson said when he became a teacher, he never anticipated the negative backlash against educators pushed in 2011.
“Five years ago, I really didn’t think teachers – or our unions – would be demonized to the level we have,” Wilkinson said. “I didn’t expect this to stick. I was thinking it would pass, there would be a political splash and that would be it.
“I wasn’t used to my profession being blamed for the troubles of the state,” he said. “I had a hard time wrapping my head around how groups of people would believe the middle class was what was destroying the state.
“It’s emotionally draining,” Wilkinson added. But over the years, he’s channeled his emotions to something positive. “The first couple of years, when teachers would eat lunch and talk about issues and where things were going, I would listen and get depressed. I’d add a little and get depressed again. Then, over the last year I started to get more involved in the union. I want to say I tried to save public education.”
Wilkinson said up until this past year he was “superficially a member,” attending an occasional school board meeting or ratification meeting. “When I was a new teacher, we had very strong union representatives and I was listening to what they had to say. Those people retired and there was a void. Now, new people are stepping up.”
To recertify – or not?
One of the hoops created through labor policy over the past five years is recertification – a requirement that local associations vote every single year to be the “bargaining agent” in their district. Local associations bear the expense of the election, all educators – not only union members – vote, and the bar of victory is set at a 51 percent “yes” vote, higher than that to elect America’s president. On top of that, anyone who doesn’t vote is automatically considered a “no.” As a “bargaining agent,” the local can negotiate “base wages” in their district, unless the district imposes a raise based on the Consumer Price Index. Then, negotiations are off and that’s enacted.
Many local associations choose not to pursue recertification and instead exert their influence through connections with the administration, school board and community.
Local associations that have pursued recertification are finding overwhelming success. Seventy-four of the seventy-five locals seeking recertification in WEAC Region 3 were successful. In Green Bay, the local education association boasts high union membership and an easy recertification win.
“We continue to have over 70 percent membership, and just had an amazing Emerging Voices this weekend where we trained 20 new leaders,” said elementary school teacher Lori Cathey, president of the Green Bay Education Association. “We are partnering with the district this month to support public education and community schools. Parents and community members are invited to visit 11 schools in the district to see for themselves the great work we’re doing in partnership.”
Same advocacy, different look
The deep political divisions created in the wake of 2011 and perpetuated over the past five years still linger, and impact how educators advocate on behalf of their students. WEAC members like La Crosse high school teacher John Havlicek, president of the La Crosse Education Association in WEAC Region 4, are still advocating, but not necessarily at the state Capitol. Changes that allow more dark money into politics means educators have more influence in their communities, while corporate lobbyists dominate the Capitol.
“Public schools accept, nurture and teach all children, with no exceptions,” Havlicek said, noting that his local is joining schools around the state – including Milwaukee, Racine, Green Bay, Tomah, Sparta and Onalaska – in February’s National Walk-In for Public Schools. “Private schools do not and so should not receive public tax dollars. If the goal is to continue providing opportunity and improvements for students, Wisconsin should invest in the public schools that serve all children.”
Along with supporting public schools, WEAC members work on other issues directly impacting students and the education professions. Wisconsin’s educational landscape is still shifting, as in the past five years Wisconsin has also seen the launch of the Educator Effectiveness teacher evaluation system, a new school “accountability” system and an on-again, off-again new state exam. Topped with increased standardized testing that takes valuable learning time away from students, educators need support from their professional organization now more than ever.
Supporting early-career educators
One of the most exciting shifts the union is centered on is welcoming and preparing Wisconsin’s next generation of educators for the classroom. Eau Claire middle school teacher Ron Martin, WEAC vice president, works with the student chapter of the union. It’s the union that provides extra opportunities for promising young educators, and supports to those just starting out in the profession.
“Early-career educators need a chance to connect with each other – to learn from each other,” he said after teaching a seminar on classroom management to 50 Oshkosh teachers this month.
Future teachers agree. “I’m part of the Student Wisconsin Education Association in WEAC Region 9 because of the amazing professional development opportunities including resources, seminars and conferences,” said Amanda, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “It’s also an opportunity to meet new friends and build a stronger network.”
I am more a professional because I am part of the union
Teachers and education support professionals have all weathered the past five years in different ways. For some, the pay cuts meant they have second – or third – jobs. Others have increased workloads which means more time spent away from their families at night while they develop lesson plans and contact parents. Some have left the teaching profession altogether, retiring or entering a different field where they’ll feel more respected and are more able to provide for their families. But educators are caring, qualified and committed to their students, and those are the professionals who comprise WEAC.
South Milwaukee elementary school teacher Hallie Schmeling, in WEAC Region 7, said the union makes her more professional.
“When talking to people who are not part of the union it’s just so hard for me to listen to their logic,” she said in an essay published across the Internet last spring. “It’s so difficult for me because I am an activist and truly view being a part of my union as an important piece of me becoming the best public educator I can be. The union has educated me about the policies that impact my work with students. The union has helped me find my voice. I am no longer worried about stating that I am a teacher and a union member. When I say I am part of the union, I know I am standing alongside people that advocate for children, are highly educated, compassionate, and work for the collective good. I am more a professional because I am part of the union.”
WEAC President Kippers said members like Schmeling will move the union far beyond the divisive politics of 2011.
“WEAC builds the profession for Wisconsin educators,” she said. “Our union stands up to privatizers who think our students are market shares. Our union loudly proclaims our schools aren’t for sale. Our union stands united to inspire our students and help public schools succeed.”
To learn more about joining WEAC, visit www.weac.org/inspire