NEW BERLIN, Wis. – The local media was in a frenzy a few years ago, when a large number of teachers were leaving the New Berlin school district.
The mass exodus was largely due to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, which curbed the power of teachers unions and allowed school administrators to manage their districts for the benefit of students.
Under the old union contract system, teachers came first. When that changed in New Berlin, a lot of teachers left.
Some departed for understandable reasons – to accept better offers from other districts, or to claim generous retirement benefits before their union contracts expired.
But many others resigned in a huff, claiming they had been “disrespected” by administrators. As one newspaper headline summed it up, “Unhappy with treatment after Act 10, many are leaving.”
“There’s no reason to stay in a district that doesn’t treat you well anymore, ” one 15-year high school guidance counselor told the media in 2012 as she prepared to leave the New Berlin district.
Some also predicted that the loss of veteran staff would hurt the quality of instruction in schools.
“As much as they thought (Act 10) would balance the budget and put money back into the schools, it’s caused the quality of education within the schools to go down, at least initially, until others are trained, ” the guidance counselor said.
As it turned out, the New Berlin district has replaced about half of its teaching staff since 2011, when Act 10 was passed, but “the quality of education” has actually improved.
“The long and the short of it is, we are having the highest level of academic success this district has ever achieved, ” said New Berlin Superintendent Joe Garza. “We have five-year highs in test scores in reading and math, and our ACT scores match the highest in the history of the district.”
So how could academics improve with the loss of so many experienced teachers?
It’s partially because, as a byproduct of Act 10, school districts have the ability to recruit quality teachers from other districts, and New Berlin has done a lot of that, Garza said.
In the past teachers had little incentive to switch districts, because they remained on strict union pay scales, which were based almost entirely on seniority. A fourth-year teacher could switch from one district to another, and be very effective, but would still be stuck with a standard fourth-year salary.
Now districts are free to treat teachers like professionals and offer them whatever salary they think they’re worth.
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