The Corner

Wisconsin Teachers Head for the Exits

Pity Ginny Fleck. She is a 69-year-old German teacher in the Green Bay Public School District who has decided to retire as a result of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s requirement that teachers now pay in to their pension accounts.

According to the state Department of Public Instruction, Fleck’s total compensation package was $88,292 last year ($58,750 in salary, the rest in benefits.) She estimates Walker’s reforms will cost her $8,000 this year — so her compensation package would only be around $80,000 — an apparent slap in the face for a teacher nearing 70 years old. According to this Associated Press article, Fleck has decided a salary of zero would be preferable to taking eighty grand of Walker’s blood money.

In retiring, Fleck has joined with nearly 5,000 other public-school employees in hanging it up this year. That is nearly twice the number of retirements Wisconsin school districts traditionally see in any given school year — 2,527 called it quits in 2010. That’s 5,000 teachers who have decided, in the words of a famous Pearl Jam song, that they would rather starve than eat Scott Walker’s bread.

Predictably, some school-district superintendents are hyperventilating about the mass exodus, complaining about all the classroom experience they’re losing. Yet in most cases, they are able to fill those positions specifically because of Walker’s reforms. The increased pension and health contributions now required of teachers will help fund the new positions — so while Walker’s plan might be driving teachers out, it is also attracting fresh young teachers into the public education system.

Furthermore, many older teachers may simply see the writing on the wall. Teachers’ unions inordinately represent older teachers; which is why seniority and retirement benefits are sacrosanct. Without unions, many terrible old teachers won’t have the seniority protections they once enjoyed, and no longer will be able to run out the clock until retirement. For instance, in the Brown Deer school district, seniority used to be the No. 1 factor when the district considered laying off a teacher; it is now sixth. (Performance is now first — a novel idea.) 

Additionally, new teachers might be just what the state needs. Under the current regime, Milwaukee schools rank near the bottom in the nation in reading scores, with 12 percent of fourth and eighth grade students reading at “proficient” levels or above. (Average annual compensation package for a Milwaukee teacher — $101,091.) And yet, because of seniority rules, the district had to fire their teacher of the year, who just happened to teach English. Wanting to keep current teachers because of their “experience” is like Home Depot hiring the Unabomber because of all his “experience” with household chemicals.

 You may recall that in the early stages of the Wisconsin protests, teachers said they marched on the Capitol because they objected to Walker’s collective-bargaining reforms. They insisted over and over that their outrage “wasn’t about the money,” realizing what Scott Walker was asking wasn’t even close to what those in the private sector had to fork over for pension and health benefits. 

But in seeing these mass retirements, clearly it was about the money. Thousands of teachers apparently feel making nothing is preferable to making an average package of $75,000 per year. Let’s just hope most of the retirements are among Wisconsin’s economics teachers.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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