A new report from the non-partisan Wisconsin Policy Forum, the name for the newly-merged Madison-based Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance and the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum, may put a dent in a popular Democratic narrative about Act 10’s effect on the Badger state. It seems that teachers aren’t fleeing Wisconsin as so many have liked to claim, but in fact school districts are seeing their numbers return to previous levels.
Virtually all of the double-digit field of Democratic gubernatorial candidates have been claiming that teachers are fleeing Wisconsin. It’s meant to point to the alleged strain Governor Scott Walker’s controversial Act 10 has put on the state’s educational establishment and how that affects classrooms.
Leading this charge has been the Center for American Progress (CAP), a Washington, D.C. based liberal think tank with heavy ties to the Democratic establishment and labor unions. In a report released in 2017, CAP claimed that teachers were continuing to leave the state in droves. Here’s how Mother Jones reported on it:
The teachers who are still working in the state are far less experienced than before Act 10. According to the report, 24.1 percent of teachers have been working for fewer than five years, a spike from 19.6 percent of teachers prior to Act 10. And those remaining teachers are shifting around within the state at a higher rate, switching school districts rather than building up local connections. The CAP study refers to other research which has concluded that most of the turnover has been people voluntarily moving on, rather than people getting fired.
“Rather than encouraging the best and the brightest to become teachers and remain in the field throughout their career,” Wisconsin state Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling said during a press call on Wednesday, “Act 10 has demonized and devalued the teaching profession and driven away many good teachers. These serious implications have left schools across Wisconsin struggling to fill teaching positions.”
That shortage is only starting. As time goes on and fewer people enter the field, the state’s school districts will struggle to find teachers to fill open slots. Already for the 2016-2017 school year, the state’s Department of Public Instruction had to relax the rules for teacher licenses so that more people could get one-year emergency approval to fill shortages.
What Mother Jones fails to point out is that “relaxing of the rules” done by the Wisconsin DPI applied only to teachers who were looking to retire soon or had been retired for five or more years who wished to return to teaching. Newer teachers were still required to go through the standard licensing procedures.
What the WPF study shows is that yes, during the height of the changes implemented under Act 10, the state saw an exodus of teachers. However, many of those were veteran educators fearful of sudden and potentially lasting changes to their pensions and essentially cashed out while they could. Since then, the ratio of “Fleeing” to “Entering” has leveled off and been on the increase since 2012.
The number of Wisconsin teachers leaving the profession increased significantly after the Act 10 collective bargaining changes were enacted in 2011. Since then, departures statewide have declined and, in recent years, teacher ranks have begun to rise again, according to a new analysis by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF).
The analysis, “Wisconsin’s Teacher Workforce: Trends in Supply and Turnover,” shows that in the year after Act 10, 6,507 teachers left the workforce, compared to 4,173 the previous year. In recent years, departures have levelled off to 5,142 in 2015 and 4,604 in 2016. In fact, the number leaving in 2016 was the lowest since the year preceding the adoption of Act 10.
Since 2012, the number of Wisconsin teachers entering the workforce has outpaced those departing, the WPF researchers noted.
The two caveats the WPF study have are 1) recruitment issues exist for certain courses, something which was an issue long before Act 10 was enacted, and 2) there has been an increase in the percentage of less experienced teachers (those in the field less than 10 years) leaving teaching from 36 percent in 2013-2014 to 40 percent in 2015-2016. While they don’t have any concrete evidence, they believe this may be caused not by changes in public policy, but a strengthening economy offering more lucrative career options.
Although the number of teachers overall has increased in recent years, WPF noted the share of younger teachers leaving the profession may be rising. In addition, among teachers who left the profession in 2015 and 2016, more than 40% had less than 10 years of experience, compared to 36% in 2013 and 2014.
Without survey data, it is difficult to determine why these younger teachers are leaving. The analysis suggests it could be due to a strengthening economy and competition from other higher-paying jobs.
The report also finds that the average age of a teacher (46.4 years) in Wisconsin has also held steady, within a range of 45.2 in 2015 to 47.7 in 2014. Still, as the chart below shows, the numbers do match the rhetoric coming from the campaigns. (Image from the WPF Report, “Wisconsin’s Teaching Workforce: Trends in Supply and Turnover.”)
While stories about teaching shortages are nothing new in recent years, the reality is any reports showing it is worse in Wisconsin than any other state due to Act 10 are clearly overstated. As the Washington Post reported last September, every state is having a hard time with teacher retention; and it’s due to a number of factors.
Current data on the 2017-18 school year confirm that most states are still experiencing difficulty hiring qualified teachers in multiple fields. The U. S. Department of Education reports that a majority of states identify shortages of teachers in mathematics (47 states and the District of Columbia), special education (46 states and D.C.), science (43 states), world languages (40 states and D.C.), career and technical education (32 states), teachers of English learners (32 states), art, music, and dance (28 states), and English (27 states).
About 90 percent of the annual nationwide demand for teachers is created because teachers leave the profession. Two-thirds of those teacher leave for reasons other than retirement, including lack of adequate preparation and mentoring, pressures of test-based accountability, lack of administrative supports, low salaries, and poor teaching conditions. These conditions, too, vary significantly across the states and influence both turnover and shortages.
While it is unlikely the new WPF report will stop any campaign rhetoric about “teacher flight,” it should give the media pause before accepting it at face value.