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Wisconsin Democrats hope slew of new bills can counteract teacher shortage

Bills would raise teacher pay, compensate for non-classroom time, add teacher seat to school boards

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A teacher sits on the ground while wearing a face mask as a circle of students listen to her.
Spanish teacher Melissa Baier de Garcia teaches students outside Monday, March 8, 2021, at Janesville Craig High School. Angela Major/WPR

Several Wisconsin Democratic lawmakers have introduced a package of eight bills aimed at addressing the shortage of teachers entering and staying in the profession.

The bills would:

  • Set minimum teacher pay tied to legislators’ own pay.
  • Create an hourly wage for student teachers.
  • Establish a non-voting seat for an educator on school boards.
  • Set up a teacher pledge loan repayment program.
  • Give bonuses to teachers who stay in the same district.
  • Pay teachers for their prep time, like preparing lessons and grading.
  • Pay teachers for time spent on non-classroom activities, like supervising lunch.
  • Give teachers the same health insurance received by Wisconsin legislators.

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“These are real solutions that actually get to the heart of the problem,” said state Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, one of the bills’ sponsors. “This is a problem of crisis proportions, and if it’s not addressed, we are going to see more and more problems developing in schools, and of course developing within our kids when they don’t have the professional educators there devoted to them.”

Wisconsin, alongside the rest of the country, has been experiencing a teacher shortage for years. District administrators say they’ve seen fewer applications for open positions, and the university programs that train teachers in Wisconsin are reporting fewer graduates. The shortage is even more pronounced among teachers of color. Additionally, the stresses of pandemic teaching have put even more pressure on teachers, who were sometimes simultaneously wrangling in-person and virtual students, and have often had to skip their prep periods to cover classes for other teachers who are out sick or quarantining.

“We must stop the bleeding now,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, another sponsor of the bills. “I believe that the bills we’re introducing today are the bare minimum that we have to do in order to restore the teaching profession and begin turning around the troubling enrollment trends that we’re seeing.”

School districts have tried to address teacher shortages on their own in various ways. Several districts have established “grow your own” teacher programs that provide scholarships and mentorship to students who want to go into teaching in exchange for those students then teaching in the district for at least a few years. The programs are often geared toward creating a more diverse teaching staff or building a rural teaching staff with ties to the area.

Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, president of the state’s largest teacher’s union, said she’s heard from teachers who never anticipated leaving the profession but have made that jump in recent years because the long hours, low pay and added stressors of the pandemic made teaching untenable. Wisconsin also saw a slight increase in teachers taking early retirement in 2020.

“Our students need more support than ever before, but there are not enough of us — ask any educator, at any school district in Wisconsin,” she said. “Our workload has dramatically increased even before the pandemic, and it’s worse now as classes are combined, preparation time is eliminated, and we’re filling in for other grades and other courses.”

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