Children across Wisconsin are headed back to school, ready to learn with backpacks full of notebooks, pencils and other supplies.

But Wisconsin public schools are more challenged than ever to have the most important school supply for learning — good teachers in every classroom — because of a state teacher shortage.

School districts throughout the state report they are struggling to meet their staffing needs. A Department of Public Instruction commissioned study found key instructional areas were experiencing staffing shortages and “workforce shortages are rapidly expanding into nearly all areas of K-12 education.”

The federal Department of Education agrees, designating teacher shortages for the 2019-20 school year in Wisconsin across grade levels and subjects including science, language arts, math and more. The special education situation is especially dire. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education reported “Half of all schools and 90 percent of high-poverty schools struggle to find qualified special education teachers ...”

Equally troubling, according to the Dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, the number of students enrolling to study to become a teacher is down 35 percent nationally, and some Wisconsin education programs are seeing even steeper enrollment declines.

We first need to understand what factors are resulting in the net loss of teachers, as individuals leave the profession or retire and fewer students pursue teaching degrees. Then we need state leaders to act to reverse the decline or the crisis will worsen and our children’s quality of education will suffer.

Salary is a major factor, both for current teachers who are leaving the profession and for students considering a career in education. On that measure, Wisconsin is headed in the wrong direction, now solidly in the bottom half of states in the nation, ranking 33rd in average teacher salary, lagging thousands of dollars in annual salary behind neighboring states.

The average Wisconsin teacher salary has not just failed to keep up relative to salaries in other states. When adjusted for inflation, it has actually declined by over 13 percent in the last decade.

Pair falling salaries in the teaching profession with student loan debt rising to historic levels in Wisconsin — we now rank in the top ten nationally for the percentage of graduates with student loan debt averaging nearly $30,000 – and it’s easy to see how the economics of teaching are becoming less attractive to potential future teachers.

Falling wages and rising health care costs aren’t any more attractive to current teaching professionals than they are to students. In fact, a recent national survey including teachers found nearly half have considered leaving their job, and they cite pay and benefits as the leading reason for considering a career change.

The problem is about more than just money. Working conditions and respect on the job matter too. Law changes in Wisconsin have cut teachers out of having input on the conditions of their workplace, leaving teachers feeling undervalued and underappreciated.

The good news is that the people of Wisconsin understand fixes are needed and support public policies leaders can adopt to help with the issues driving Wisconsin’s teacher shortage.

A recent poll commissioned by One Wisconsin Now found two-thirds of state voters considered the teacher shortage to be a serious problem. A similar number, 64 percent, think a portion of new funding allocated to school districts should be used to fund an increase in teacher pay. This includes almost unanimous support among Democrats (86-6) and the overwhelming support of independents (63-23).

A solid majority of voters support changing state law to allow teachers to negotiate over benefits and working conditions and remove limits on public school teachers negotiating with school districts for pay increases, with less than one-third of voters opposed.

The back to school assignment for the state legislature as they return for their fall session is to work to stem the teacher shortage in Wisconsin. Our future success depends on them doing the work to pass the test.

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