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Wisconsin Teachers React To Gov. Scott Walker's Newly Signed Budget

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SCOTT WALKER
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed into law this weekend a budget bill that scrapped $800 million in education funding. | AP

Margarette Allen was never ashamed to be a teacher. She still isn't -- for the most part.

"I'm proud of what I do," the Manitowoc, Wis., high school English teacher told The Huffington Post. "I do a very important job. I work hard to be very good at that job. I have never until recently felt, I don’t want to say ashamed, but a little bit hesitant to tell people what I do. With the current political climate, we've been labeled at the state level."

This weekend, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) signed into law a budget that scrapped $800 million in education funding following an earlier law that reduced collective bargaining rights to almost nothing. As Walker put pen to paper, Allen felt mixed emotions.

"Having that legislation official, now signed into law, it's a done deal," she said. "It's been heartbreaking but it also strengthens my resolve to continue being politically active."

"For a lot of us, it's very demoralizing and very disheartening," she continued. "We feel like we've been targeted as the cause for all the economic woes of the state of Wisconsin."

During this legislative session, many states have passed laws that dramatically alter the face of public education, changing what it means to be a teacher. Some states, like Illinois, passed more moderate bipartisan bills that tied teacher evaluations to student test scores. Wisconsin, though, kicked off a wave of Republican-dominated states that slashed education budgets and collective bargaining rights and, despite strong backlash, did not have to make any concessions.

In addition to putting these laws on the books, Walker's signature this weekend strengthened the resolve of teachers like Allen, who ultimately may see an effort to recall elected officials as their only recourse.

Beginning in February, Walker's proposals caused severe backlash, with public employees occupying the capitol. The passage of the bill followed the exodus of the state's 14 senate Democrats in efforts to prevent a quorum.

As a byproduct of the Wisconsin budget fracas, more and more teachers have become politically active. Allen, who has taught high school English in Manitowoc for 11 years, has been making trips to Madison every weekend since February.

"The budget is still a backwards document," said Christina Brey, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Education Association Council. "When state workers agreed to make all the financial concessions, and he still went forward with his plan to take our voices out of the classroom, it showed what he wanted to do to the people of Wisconsin, not with them."

Walker is pleased with the budget because it plugs a major financial hole. "Just as any parent would dread leaving their kids in debt, it is the dream of every mother and father to leave their children a little better off, and that’s what our budget will do," Walker said in a statement. "For the first time in a long time, we leave our children with more than we had."

The budget cuts are short on specifics, and will only be translated into tangible classroom losses as school districts filter the impact of their cuts from state funds. Still, teachers are bracing for the worst, expecting cuts in the salaries they take home, scrapped programs, rising class sizes and more school closures. What's set in stone is that only their base pay can be negotiated through the bargaining process.

Gail Milbrath has taught physical education in Milwaukee's public schools for almost a quarter century. Like Allen, she said she feels demoralized. "It's sad," she said. "You have to push yourself to stay positive. You have ideas for how to make things better and now you wake up with a cloud over your head."

The rhetoric surrounding teachers as a result of the budget discussions, she said, has been crippling. "I'm not a union pug," she said. "I'm a person involved in what they do."

Her district, Milbrath said, reduced the total count of full-time physical education teachers in K-5 and K-8 schools from 56 to 24. "Thousands of kids aren’t getting any physical education. They're not getting the education I got," she said. "And I have to wonder why."

Jennifer Marten, who teaches gifted and talented education throughout Plymouth's schools, is frustrated. "For as long as I've taught here, for 14 years, the district has been cutting programs as the years go by," she said. "When I started, we had five elementary schools. We're down to three. One of the things that as a possibility this year was going down to two. We were able to avoid doing that."

Class sizes, she said, keep increasing. "When you have that many more bodies in there, there's not enough time to get everything done," she said. Her district has cut busing and programs to the point where there's not much left to go.

"It's frustrating to feel like your voice isn’t being heard," Marten said. "There's a rhetoric that teachers need a voice, but nobody listens to that voice."

Her students, she said, picked up on the drama. In front of Fairview elementary school, a fourth grader and her twin siblings going into second grade set up a lemonade stand to raise money to help save their school. They made $32 and some change.

She said she, like Allen, resents the reputation teachers have gotten over these last few months. "When I teach, it's not about anything else. It's about those kids, despite what people now say," she said.

Marten doesn’t know what the future will bring to her profession, but she knows to feel lucky her job -- one that involves shuttling between classrooms and no direct test preparation -- has been spared. "We have contract for two more years," she said. "We don’t know what will happen down the road."

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