“We don’t have a teacher shortage. We have a teacher exodus,” said Nicki Vander Meulen, school board member and clerk for the Madison Metropolitan School District, with a clear air of frustration.
Madison is suffering from a shortage of teachers entering the workforce and an inability to retain teachers in their positions. The problem is especially pertinent in special education and bilingual departments, said President of Madison Teachers Inc. Andy Waity.
“Wisconsin public schools, like [many] schools across the country, are facing historic teacher shortages,” the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reported in 2016. “Significantly fewer students are pursuing education as a career, and Wisconsin districts are reporting increasingly shallow applicant pools for a variety of positions.”
In Madison, Leopold Elementary School and La Follette High School especially struggle with teacher retention because they are high poverty schools, according to Vander Meulen.
Teacher shortages are not specific to Madison; however, they are a problem on a national scale.
At the root of the problem, according to Waity, is a lack of respect felt among those in the profession — they don’t feel like their voices are heard. Low pay also draws people away from the profession, and Vander Meulen explained some teachers have to take second or third jobs to make ends meet.
“Teachers have been treated with little respect, and even less pay,” Vander Meulen said. “Teachers are showing their displeasure to this by leaving the profession completely.”
Teaching is a “labor-intensive field,” Waity said, and public schools are lacking the resources to support this. Students need emotional support and nurturing, which is hard to accomplish when schools don’t have the available funding or staff to do so.
Many of the issues teachers face can be traced back to Act 10, a 2011 budget bill that had major impacts on collective bargaining, retirement and health insurance. This bill has been one of the biggest causes of teacher shortages across the state.
“[Act 10] limited [teachers’] ability to set wages and get insurance that was cost-effective,” Vander Meulen said. “Basically, it crippled labor and it crippled education — and our state, 10 years later, still pays the price for that.”
As a result of staffing shortages in schools, teachers have to fill in for other teachers,often in a subject area different than their own — like a math teacher subbing for a history teacher — and students’ quality of education is suffering because of it.
Waity feels that there is a general “lack of awareness of what’s going on” among legislators. And until teachers feel heard, he said, this problem won’t go away.
Still, increasing support for education has been on the agenda for many state legislators.
Gov. Tony Evers recently called for a special session to invest in public schools after the Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported an expected $450 million surplus by the end of this biennium. Evers hopes to reinvest the surplus in special education, mental health services at schools and sparsity aid for rural schools.
In order to fix the larger problem of teacher shortages across Madison, Vander Meulen believes the city must treat teachers with respect, reduce class sizes and partake in legislative lobbying to get rid of Act 10.
“The profession is under attack,” Vander Meulen said. “Every school is being affected in a negative manner.”