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Wisconsin teachers retire in droves after union loss in bargaining fight

Teachers across Wisconsin are retiring or quitting at higher rates than usual, due in part to a new law that cuts benefits and curtails collective bargaining rights.

By Staff writer / September 16, 2011

Gov. Scott Walker reads to a second-grade class at Messmer Preparatory school in Milwaukee. Wisconsin schools this fall are dealing with smaller budgets and veteran teachers departing.

Jeff Sainlar/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel/AP


In the small Monona Grove School District in Wisconsin, three teachers had planned to retire this year. But then, says history teacher Thomas Howe, the "political dust-up" happened – the controversy over a law, eventually pushed through by Gov. Scott Walker (R) and supporters, that restricts public employees' collective-bargaining power.

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In the midst of the battle last spring, 17 teachers, including Mr. Howe, retired from that school district. "Many of us felt very bittersweet about it," he says.

Across Wisconsin this year, teachers have opted to retire at higher rates than usual, partly in response to the new law. Under the law, teachers have to contribute a considerable chunk of their salaries to health and retirement plans, and districts can decide to lengthen the school day or year without increasing salaries.

For supporters of the legislation, it grants more flexibility to districts to prevent costs from careening out of control. Some districts have already started saving money, according to Governor Walker's office.

Moreover, the instruction at some schools may benefit from a changing of the guard, education experts say.

"To the degree this is a shift in the composition of who's in the system ... it is going to align the system more with the direction of current education reform, which I would say is good," says Allan Odden, a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But for opponents of the law, it unfairly cuts take-home pay, batters morale, and deprives schools of droves of veteran teachers who are retiring early. "The loss of experience and the loss of qualified mentors [for new teachers] outweighs any financial gain to the districts," says Betsy Kippers, a teacher in Racine and vice president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a 98,000-member union.

Many states – not just Wisconsin – have been struggling to rein in the benefit costs of public employees. Indiana and Ohio both passed laws this year restricting collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers – though voters may repeal Ohio's in November.

In Tacoma, Wash., the school district's proposal to trim teacher pay, increase class sizes, and reassign teachers based on evaluations rather than strictly on seniority prompted a strike that's now in its fourth day, despite a judge's temporary order on Wednesday that the nearly 1,900 teachers return to work.

But the fiercest statewide battle has been waged in Wisconsin, where 5,000 school employees – about twice as many as in each of the past two years – are retiring this year, according to The Associated Press.

The Beloit district lost 10 percent of its teachers, filling only 40 out of 60 vacancies. And by January, Green Bay expects more than 10 percent of its teachers to have retired, the AP reports.

At the high school where Howe worked, eight teachers retired who had taught there for more than 160 years combined. "You can't replace that," he says.

If Howe had continued teaching, the law would require him to pay 5.8 percent of his salary into his retirement plan, plus a substantial amount toward health insurance, in effect reducing his take-home pay by 10 percent, he says. And class sizes are going up by 10 percent or more.


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