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'Nobody Knew How To Treat Anybody': Wisconsin Schools 5 Years after Act 10

Joe Brusky, flickr
Protesters marching across the Sixteenth Street viaduct in support of public education.

It was five years ago that the controversial legislation known as Act 10 went into effect. The law sharply curtails collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin. Supporters said it was aimed at giving local governments and school districts more flexibility in hiring – or firing, and more control in various measures of quality.

This week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has taken an in-depth look at the impact of Act 10 on school districts across Wisconsin after five years.  Reporters Dave Umhoefer and Sarah Hauer explain why public schools were an important lens through which to view the impact of Act 10.

"[Teachers] were so prominent in the protests," says Umhoefer. "It's just a topic that everybody's interested in. Everybody went to school, school parents, school taxes. So we just thought, 'lets narrow this down, try to make [the investigation] doable on a topic of universal interest.'"

Additionally, he says that there also no shortage of data coming from schools. "You can measure [whether] people show up. There are test scores, of course. You can track what [salaries] teachers are making."

Yet reporting on the schools wasn't an easy task given the new climate. "In reporting this project, without that union protection, it was really tough to get people to go on the record with their comments," says Hauer. "We talked to tons of teachers behind closed doors to get a sense of what's going on before we could actually get someone to put their name in the paper."

The duo found cost saving benefits of Act 10 for schools, including requiring teachers to pay more for health insurance or pension without negotiation with unions. Yet, there are consequences to that power, says Umhoefer. "If you go too far in those cuts, then teachers can walk en masse, and we've seen that in some school districts where changes were made too fast and you get to summer and realize that 25% of our teachers are not coming back."

Hauer says that teachers, too, have gained flexibility. "A lot of teachers have actually been able to make schedules that work better for them," she says, "that wouldn't have been possible if they were under the same collective bargaining agreement."

At the same time, other developments have not favored the teachers. "The old teacher contracts spelled out in great detail what exactly teachers had to do and when," describes Umhoefer. "Teachers had a lot of control over the hours, the calendar. That quickly went out the window. What you're seeing as a cost saving measure in some cases is have all teachers teach an extra class [to save the cost of a teacher.]"

Umhoefer says that the current era is one of rebuilding. "[Act 10] was very traumatic. It almost sent teachers and their bosses into a downward trend for a year or two," he says. "Take home pay was affected greatly. There was this distrust that immediately got built in. Teachers love to be collaborative, they love to get along. They're used to having their voice listened to. [Because of Act 10] nobody knew how to treat anybody, and they're really just repairing that relationship."

The impact of Act 10 on teacher turnover is the subject of a panel at Marquette University’s O’Brien Fellowship conference Friday afternoon.

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