How exactly will Wisconsin classrooms be affected by the hundreds of millions in cuts to education funding proposed in Gov. Scott Walker's biennial budget?
No one seems to know for sure, but educators in Dane County say they have some pretty good guesses. Larger classes. Fewer veteran teachers. Decreased supplies. Less professional development. A demoralized workforce.
Already, many teachers are leaving the profession, sooner than they'd planned.
"Rather than take a chance of losing benefits I put in many years to get, I decided to retire this year," says Tom Howe, who has taught for 32 years, most of them as a history teacher at Monona Grove High School, and was 1995 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year . "It was almost completely because of this."
Many teachers are leaving the profession. The Middleton-Cross Plains District alone has 32 teachers who will retire this year. Many will not be replaced, administrators say.
Consequently, the schools are bracing for bigger class sizes, as well as the loss of building mentors and valuable professional development resources. Julie Young, in her first year teaching fourth grade at Lincoln Elementary in Madison, expects she could have as many as 27 students per class, up from 17 to 23.
"It's a lot easier meeting everyone's needs when you have 16 to 17 kids," Young says.
But that isn't the only consequence of Walker's determination to slash funding to public schools. Young says it's tough doing already difficult work when you're perceived as "not valued." It's a common sentiment.
Jocelyn Meyer, who's finishing her elementary education degree at the UW-Madison's School of Education, feels her career path has lost its luster.
"I tell people I'm about to become a teacher and they look at me like I have cancer, like I have a terminal illness, and that just sucks the breath out of you," says Meyer, 25. "I hate the feeling."
Meyer decided to become a teacher after experiencing the effect of caring educators in her life. As a Madison teen, she struggled and nearly fell through the cracks of her own education.
"I skipped school constantly and was on the verge of failure," she recalls. "A counselor of mine asked me if I wanted to go to Shabazz." She calls her experience at Madison's alternative high school "an example of how schools can save somebody's life."
Now, like other teachers, Meyer is depressed by what she sees happening. When she talks about her chosen field, it's with some measure of resignation: "What else am I going to do?"
In testimony before the Joint Finance Committee in late March, state school Superintendent Tony Evers said Walker's proposed biennial budget would "impose historic cuts that will erode the quality of our public schools." The budget cuts $840 million in state school aids over the biennium, plus puts in place a 5.5% reduction to school district revenue limits, dictating the amount of money schools have available to spend.
Across the state, schools are anticipating a need to reduce spending by between $480 and $1,100 per pupil, depending on the district. In Madison, for instance, spending per pupil must be reduced $613. That's comparable to other area districts, including Monona Grove ($696) and Middleton-Cross Plains ($588).
Many of Dane County's 16 school districts have already quickly approved contracts with unions representing teachers and other employees, to avoid changes dictated by Walker's budget repair bill, now on hold by a Dane County court. In each instance, negotiations generated millions of dollars in savings ($15 million in Madison alone) by increasing employee health insurance and retirement contributions - the "tools" Walker said his bill gave school districts and local governments.
But in each instance, these "tools" haven't gone far enough to avoid changes that many fear will undercut the quality of education.
Wisconsin Heights, a tiny district in the far western corner of Dane County, serves about 800 students with a staff of 109. It expects 12 people to retire this year, eight of them teachers. At least some of these workers will not be replaced.
"Our number-one priority is to try to keep class sizes as reasonable as possible," says Wisconsin Heights Superintendent Mark Elworthy. "This has required us to change the way we deliver instruction."
Elworthy, noting the inability to replace experienced teachers retiring this year, says one option under consideration is distance learning - using online resources to take the place of instruction provided by district teachers. "It's challenging for us to figure out if we can provide a similar type of instruction with one less person."
In Monona Grove, Superintendent Craig Gerlach says funding cuts are forcing his schools to push the upper limit of class-size guidelines - up to 30 kids per classroom in high schools and 22 in elementary classrooms.
Middleton-Cross Plains expects classroom sizes will increase slightly because of an expected increase in enrollment and the inability to add new teachers. District spokeswoman Erin Celello adds that budgets have been frozen while costs for everything from bus fuel to textbooks are increasing.
Madison schools seem to be in a better position to weather the changes. In presenting his proposed budget in late March, Madison Superintendent Dan Nerad said his top goal was to close a $20 million gap while "avoiding impact on classroom."
"I can't say there's no impact," says Nerad. "But class sizes will remain the same." The district will need to trim some administrative and other positions, but hopes to keep its level of front-line teachers intact.
Madison teachers have until April 15 to decide whether they'll retire this year; and the district will not release preliminary retirement numbers at this time. Typically, between 80 and 120 teachers leave. But the district expects to hire replacements.
If Nerad's budget is approved, in fact, the deepest cut in Madison may be in classroom supplies. As in Middleton, Madison's non-salary budget has been frozen at 2010-11 levels.
Like school superintendents elsewhere, Nerad recognizes that most school employees have taken hits to ease their districts' budget pain.
"Our staff has made significant sacrifice in the negotiation process that will allow us to not make program cuts," he says. "Without that being settled, we would have to reduce the budget by that amount."
But Monona Grove's Gerlach warns that this is just the beginning of the hardship schools will face under the governor's two-year plan. "We could face eliminating 40 positions the following year to offset funding cuts if nothing changes," he says.
Celello of Middleton-Cross Plains agrees the situation doesn't look so bad this year "because of a significant sacrifice by our teachers and staff." But, she notes, "that is a one-time sacrifice. We can't keep going back to them indefinitely for additional salary cuts and continue to maintain the high quality of education that our students deserve."
And while veteran teacher Howe has decided it's time to step aside, he's hopeful about the excellent new teachers he sees entering the field. In fact, his son, Alex, is finishing his master's degree in education and will carry on the family tradition.
Young also plans to continue teaching, no matter how tough it gets. "With the money I'm making now, I'm barely making it, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to continue and pay rent and food. That thought lasted maybe only 10 seconds when I considered maybe looking for something else. I knew it wasn't an option.
"Politics change. Opinions change, and things will have to come back around eventually."