One teacher’s response to Governor Walker’s educational budget proposals

This letter first appeared in the Stevens Point City Times. It was written by David Poffinbarger, a Stevens Point music teacher and Music Coordinator for the Stevens Point Area Public Schools. Poffinbarger is a WEAC member.

To the Editor –

I would like to respond to Governor Walker’s budget proposals for education.

First a few disclaimers. I am a teacher; I did not vote for the governor and I did sign the recall petition. While I expect that many will now dismiss the contents of this letter I’ll continue anyway.

This is not an attempt to condemn Act 10, while I disagree with it I believe that there’s probably no going back and it’s here to stay. I would like to discuss three elements of the governor’s proposal and how it affects K-12 education in our state. No matter where you stand politically I implore you to read this and consider the arguments made.

First of all, the governor proposes that teaching licenses be granted to those who can pass an “information test.” I that I feel this proposal shows a lack of understanding of the attributes it takes to comprise a good teacher.

Certainly a teacher should have knowledge and expertise in the subject area(s) that they teach but that is only part of the equation.

Teachers also need to have knowledge about the way students learn, and the different types of learners, as well as learning disabilities. They must have many ways to teach the same thing in order to reach all of their students. Teachers need to know how to build strong, appropriate student teacher relationships, they need to know how their classroom setting and demeanor directly affect the ability of their students to learn, understand, and use the information that they are attempting to teach.

This proposal makes no mention of any educational apprenticeship or training such as a student teaching experience. Do we really want to send people into the classroom with no understanding of how children learn and no classroom experience or vetting period?

As both a music teacher and someone who is an active performer I know many excellent musicians who would make very poor teachers. “Real life experience” is an important and valuable thing, but it in no way reduces the need to have the knowledge and training that educators need to be successful.

When floating this proposal ahead of the budget announcement Mr. Walker said that it was needed because there were teacher shortages. I fear that eliminating most professional requirements will result in low wage teaching positions filled by low quality, non-professional, teachers.

If we really want to run our schools like successful businesses shouldn’t we attempt to attract and retain the best teaching staff that we can? This proposal only makes sense if the state’s plan is to continue to reduce financial support for education or take the same financial support and divide it among many more schools. In either of those instances we eventually come to a point where teacher wages become low enough that it makes no financial sense to invest in an education degree in order to become a professional educator.

The second proposal that I’d like to address is the proposal to lift caps on vouchers and expand them statewide. There are several things to think about here. With the educational financial pie split into many more pieces everyone gets a smaller amount and materials, buildings, and salaries all take a big hit.

The history of education and segregation in the deep south reminds us that when we try to finance two separate systems of education the result is that we get poor quality in both. The idea of competition between the various types of schools can be an appealing idea but if every school or school district gets to choose whatever test they would like we have no objective criteria to decide which schools are better for our children.

The promoters of voucher education, initially, spoke a lot about failing public schools and touted private schools as virtually always being superior. When voucher schools, receiving state money, were eventually required to take the same tests as their public counterparts the results were disappointing and the new line became “we want to give parents a choice”.

Will private schools be required to take all students who apply regardless of physical disabilities, learning disabilities, behavior history, religious beliefs, etc.? Will they be required to meet the educational needs of every student or will they be allowed to “cherry pick?” Will private schools be required to accept what the state offers per pupil as full payment, or will they be able to price certain income and demographic groups out of their institutions? What role will transportation play in families’ ability to choose? If the nearest “good school” is an hour away does that mean poor, working class, and even middle class families don’t get to make that choice? What defines an acceptable voucher school? Do they have to have any track record, or standards for employment at all?

Given the fact that the proponents of voucher schools fought against the state requirement that voucher school teachers at least have a high school diploma, I feel this is a legitimate fear.

The third proposal that I’ll address is the governor’s idea to throw out the rigorous, new Smarter Balanced testing system and allow schools to “choose the assessment they feel is best for their students.” This surprises me more than anything. After all of the talk about accountability and education reform the governor wants us to go back to the old system of each school or school system choosing whatever testing makes them look good and declaring themselves successful.

The proposed new letter grade report card that the governor proposes to help inform parents could not possibly have any credibility or any informative value for families if everyone is taking a different test. I struggle to make any sense out of this other than as an intentional clouding or elimination of accountability.

I have lived in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, for a long time. I am lucky enough to have many friends, some of my best friends are quite conservative but we manage to maintain strong friendships with each other and they are usually quite supportive of their local public schools. As a teacher I have done my best to build strong relationships with all parents.

I know that the vast majority of parents, and of all Wisconsinites, really do want to keep public schools strong in our state. If Act 10 was truly a way to give school systems the opportunity to provide quality education that is sustainable, then much of what Governor Walker proposed in his 2015 budget makes no sense.

The only way it seems to make sense is if its true purpose was to gradually weaken public education until it can be eliminated entirely. I understand that by putting myself out there, publicly I will be attacked with numerous political zingers and thoughtless comments from both sides. I hope that there are some thoughtful responses as well.

I don’t believe that the people of Wisconsin whether they’re right, left or somewhere in the center want to weaken education in our state. I think that most Wisconsin citizens understand that public education is a very important part of educating our work force, offering opportunities in great literature, art, music, and science.

Public education is a significant part of what has, traditionally, made Wisconsin’s quality of life so excellent. I hope that the people of Wisconsin will contact their state senators and assemblypersons and let them know that they want to keep public education strong in Wisconsin. Our children and grandchildren are counting on it!!!

David Poffinbarger
Stevens Point

In the Stevens Point City Times, this column drew nearly 200 comments, and the one receiving the most “likes” was this one:

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