The First Lady of the United States visited Milwaukee Wednesday, speaking to teachers, students and parents about the challenges facing schools. As a teacher herself for over three decades, Jill Biden said she understands educators' day-to-day problems.
"This isn't always an easy job," she said at a Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association meeting. "Right now, it feels harder than ever, doesn't it? But we keep coming back. Because this isn't just a job. It's a calling. So when the budgets run thin, and the lesson plans go wrong, teachers find a way to push past the chaos and build something beautiful."
During the visit, Biden also met with Gov. Tony Evers, who is campaigning for reelection against Republican challenger Tim Michels. A Marquette University Law School poll released the same day as the visit showed Evers and Michels are essentially tied in the race.
Education is a focus of the gubernatorial campaign. A former educator and past State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Evers has called for increased funding for schools. Michels and Republican supporters have been critical of Evers record on education, pointing to standardized test scores that slipped following school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
School spending in Wisconsin hasn't kept pace with the rest of the country. In 2020, the state's spending sat 6 percent below the national average, ranking 25th in the country. That's despite ranking 11th for per-pupil spending in 2002.
In 2021, the Republican-controlled state Legislature chose to freeze school funding, which pushed schools to use federal pandemic relief money for basic expenses, like utilities and salaries, rather than COVID-related initiatives.
In her visits with educators Wednesday, Biden praised staff members who stepped up as the pandemic challenged schools, including cafeteria workers and bus drivers taking on extra hours to get meals to students who needed them.
"I saw this so often during the pandemic," she said. "And when families are struggling to find housing, when they're wrestling with trauma or grief, school counselors call after work and make sure that those families have the help that they need."
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But schools across the state have been struggling to fill empty positions, contending with falling enrollment in teacher education programs, low morale, pandemic-related stress and low pay. The average salary for teachers in the state is around $39,000, ranking 34th in the country, and sitting below Wisconsin's minimum living wage of $53,239.
"Educators, you are the heart of your communities. And you were called to this profession for a reason," Biden said. "Because you never give up on the families you serve. Because when extremists try to stop you from doing your job, you just put your shoulders back, and you focus on the kids who need you."
Schools across the state have become the sites of political battle waged over what students are taught. Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers passed a "parental bill of rights," which would have allowed parents to reject lesson plans and take their children out of classes based on religion or "personal conviction." Evers vetoed the proposal, saying lawmakers on all sides need to stop using students as "political pawns."
Other schools have been targeted for their policies on LGBTQ+ issues. Madison and Eau Claire school districts are facing lawsuits over their guidelines allowing transgender students to change the names they use in school without parental consent. The suits argue that the guidelines violate parents' constitutional rights.
"We have to speak up for justice and equity," Biden said. "All of us have a teacher voice, and now is the time to use it. We must come together as (the National Education Association) always has, and demand that we be heard."
After the union meeting, Biden joined Evers to meet with students and parents at a "Homework Diner" at Westside Academy in Milwaukee. The program is designed to strengthen the connections between families and teachers as they eat and work on homework together.
"This is our opportunity to come back to the table," Principal Renee Drane said at the dinner. "The pandemic took us away. If you're a busy mom like I am…you may not have that chance to sit down at the dinner table and have that opportunity to have a conversation."
The "Homework Diner" also gives teachers a way to get to know families in a space that isn't intimidating, Drane said.
"I love the idea of creating a sense of community, a sense of family, where teachers get to know parents," Biden said. "I love that teachers give up their time and say, 'Yes, we want to be a part of this.' Because it's important that we get to know our students' families."