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Editorial cartoon (9/14/2016)

There's a verbal war under way over why fewer of our young people are opting to become teachers.

Many in Wisconsin are convinced that the teacher shortage here stems from Gov. Scott Walker's and the Republican Legislature's Act 10, the 2011 legislation that not only made it illegal for teachers' unions to bargain, but required them to shoulder part of the load for their benefits, which resulted in take home pay reductions of up to 17 percent.

Balderdash, counter Walker's fans, who believe it's perfectly fine to denude unions and make public employees pay more of the bills. Rightie talk radio host Jerry Bader wrote on Right Wisconsin a few days ago that the teacher shortage is a national phenomenon, not confined to Wisconsin and, therefore, has nothing to do with Act 10.

I'd dispute that cause and effect comparison since many of the other states experiencing teacher shortages have also adopted legislation that has hurt teachers, including Indiana, Ohio and Arizona, where Republicans of like mind rule the roost.

But I'd add that it's much deeper than Act 10 itself, although that signature Walker legislation validated the anti-teacher attitude that has gripped so much of the country in recent years. Maybe it's because teachers get a three-month "vacation" in the summer or have received "free" health coverage or have come down too hard on someone's unruly kid.

Whatever is to blame, it's a dangerous attitude on the part of all too many Americans and if it isn't reversed, could become particularly damaging to our children's — and nation's — future. And it surely didn't help when Walker pointedly referred to teachers and other public employees as the "haves" versus the "have nots" he was courting to vote for him — successfully, it turns out. 

Somehow it became viewed as outrageous that a teacher, with at least four years of college and continuing education credits, who puts in 60- to 70-hour weeks during the school year and deals with the sad problem cases that society sends him or her, should earn more money or get better benefits than the high school grad on the assembly line.

It may make a good sound bite on the campaign trail, but it's divisive, pitting entirely different groups of workers against each other.

It should come as no surprise that teachers are demoralized. Here in Wisconsin, Act 10 has seen to it that not only did take-home pay get sliced, but under the rules that no wage increases can be greater than the rate of inflation, there is no chance to ever make it back to where they were, no matter how supposedly robust Scott Walker's economy becomes. Would you view that as a promising profession when deciding your major in college? 

What's our Republican leaders' answer for the teacher shortage? Allow them to bargain for a raise? Help them pay off student loans? Give them more support in the classroom? Help the public better understand the key role teachers play in America's democracy? No, none of the above.

Their answer is to actually lower teaching standards instead. Allow anyone with a bachelor's degree to step in and teach a class based on his or her work experience. No education credits required. No experience dealing with slow-learning students or kids with emotional problems, handling conflicts or developing stimulating lesson plans. 

Talk about demoralizing a work force. Perhaps we should have those folks who spend the night at a Holiday Inn Express go work in our doctors’ offices.

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State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout wrote a column recently about how hard the shortage is hitting rural Wisconsin. Those small school districts can't afford to match offers from the rich districts, which are able to entice teachers with significant raises.

Can you imagine, she pointed out, what it does for morale in a rural district where teachers have had almost no pay increase for seven years because the taxpayers can't afford it when suddenly a teacher in a specialized, high-demand subject gets a $12,000 raise?

This may be a national problem, as Scott Walker's apologists insist, but we need to worry about Wisconsin's. It didn't have to be this way, but thanks to a bankrupt philosophy on how to run government, this is what we have.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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Editor Emeritus

Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.