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September 30, 2023 10:48 am

Opinion

More Than a Muffin: Getting Serious About Teacher Appreciation Week | Opinion

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by Ruth Conniff, Wisconsin Examiner

It’s that time of year again. Parents are sharing sign-up sheets, volunteering to bring flowers, cards and breakfast treats to their kids’ schools. “Teacher Appreciation Week,” like Mother’s Day, which comes hard on its heels, is all about celebrating the (mostly female) caregivers we depend on to make sure things are going OK for kids.

The sentimental tributes might be genuinely sweet, but they’re thin icing on a structure that drastically undervalues caregivers. Wisconsin is confronting a dire child care crisis, as my colleague Erik Gunn reports, since providers can’t afford to stay in business and parents can’t afford to cover the high cost of quality care without public support that is drying up. Kids who are old enough to go to primary school are entering just as a teacher exodus reaches its peak after more than a decade of deteriorating wages and working conditions.

For far too long, we’ve taken the people who raise, teach and care for children for granted, thanking them with muffins, sticky hugs, warm wishes and poverty wages. Lately, even the hugs and warm wishes are on the decline, as teacher-bashing and a divisive crusade for “parents’ rights” has become a plank in the national Republican platform — a trend that started right here in Wisconsin.

Ever since the administration of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin has been on the path to defunding public schools at the same time we are rapidly expanding a second system of taxpayer-financed private schools. This socially and fiscally imprudent move is driven by aggressive ideology, not conservative budgeting. And it has propelled a tragic decline in the quality of education in our state, as well as an increasingly lousy social atmosphere, especially for teachers.

Between the 2010-11 school year and 2020-21, the inflation-adjusted median salary of Wisconsin’s teachers fell by about $6,000, and fringe benefits fell by almost $8,500, while insurance co-pays and deductibles dramatically increased. Dan Rossmiller, the government relations director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, highlighted those figures Tuesday at a Teacher Appreciation Week press conference organized by the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC).

Rossmiller also underscored research showing that having a great teacher is the single most important in-school contributor to student success. “But teachers deserve more than just our thanks,” Rossmiller said. “They also deserve respect and to be treated as professionals.”

For more than a decade, fewer people have been pursuing teaching careers, and 20% or more of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years, he noted.

Recent state budgets passed by the Wisconsin Legislature have made things worse. Wisconsin has cut $3.9 billion from schools since 2012, according to the Wisconsin Budget Project. At the same time, state lawmakers have refused to adjust Wisconsin’s per-pupil school district revenue limits to keep pace with inflation, effectively freezing local school districts’ budgets.

“That has driven increasing numbers of school districts to seek local voters’ approval of referendums simply to maintain programs and staffing for our students,” Rossmiller said.

In districts where voters don’t raise their own taxes to fund schools, school spending now trails inflation by nearly $2,240 per student. Rossmiller closed his remarks by urging people to ask their state legislators to allow an increase in per-pupil school funding that meets or exceeds inflation. That doesn’t sound like a very big ask. 

“Our students are counting on us to turn this ship around,” said WEAC President Peggy Wirtz Olson, a high school English and art teacher, at the Tuesday press conference.

Along with better pay and working conditions for teachers and restoring school funding that keeps pace with inflation, addressing students’ untreated mental health problems are among teachers’ and school officials’ top priorities.

“Our students are showing symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma,” said Nicki Ells, principal of Northside Elementary School and Coulee Montessori in La Crosse. She quoted U.S. Department of Education data that shows a big spike in student mental health concerns since the pandemic began, with nearly half of public schools reporting that they can’t adequately meet their students’ needs.

“Our students are struggling with interpersonal skills. They’re having a difficult time making relationships and appropriately handling some of the daily mishaps that come about throughout their day,” Ells said. “This is taking a large toll on my staff, and they, too, are struggling from some of those same symptoms.”

Ells quoted Eleanor Roosevelt, who called on Americans who love their own children to commit themselves to protecting the welfare of all children, since the neglect of any child harms the community as a whole.

This philosophy is exactly what’s at stake as our state contemplates the fate of teachers, students, and public schools in the current budget process.

Instead of pulling together to support our common interest in providing a healthy, safe, educational environment for all children, we are increasingly leaning into the opposite impulse — encouraging families to jockey for scarce resources for their own kids at the expense of other children. This competitive, winners-and-losers mentality is bad for kids, and ultimately bad for everyone.

“This Teacher Appreciation Week, actions speak louder than words,” WEAC’s Olson said. “Passing a budget that supports our students and educators is the very best way to show teachers in Wisconsin we’re valued, supported and appreciated.”

And with a record $7 billion budget surplus, there’s no reason Wisconsinites can’t put our money where our muffins are and do the right thing for our teachers and our kids.

This story was written by Ruth Conniff, Editor-in-Chief of the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.