Commentary: Who Can Afford to Teach?

“I’m grateful that I let Such & Such Investment Company handle my finances,” the grandfatherly man in the television advertisement smiled. “Now that I am retired, I can finally afford to do what I’ve always wanted: teach!”

When I first saw this commercial perhaps I should have swelled with pride, as I had been doing all along what I had wanted, teaching since 1966. But instead I felt as if I were some impractical guy who had made a career of volunteer work, like someone who never graduated from the Peace Corps.

Now that our conservative friends in state government have passed the Budget Repair Bill, I can imagine how new teachers must feel. Will they be able to afford to teach? One of my young friends is a high school foreign language teacher in a district both wealthy and conservative. She has a master’s degree and national certification. Her class sizes this coming year will range from 30 to 35 students for the first time, putting both her and her students at a disadvantage. By mid-August she still didn’t know what she would be paid, only that cuts in teachers’ salaries were being used as Band-Aids to repair the budget.

Public schools in Wisconsin are striving to survive financially by not replacing those teachers who retire, by cutting positions and programs, and by raising class sizes. (Does anyone still talk of education reform?)

One of my former students, perhaps the most gifted to pass through my classroom, is a teacher in a public high school out East. He cannot afford to buy a house and live in the district where he works. But he recently told me that given the current political situation in Wisconsin, he has no interest in returning to teach here.

Two experienced teachers among my acquaintances have left the state and others have abandoned the profession. Many who remain feel too insecure to consider making a major purchase such as a new car or a house.

And what will become of those children who are our most precious resource, those boys and girls who are our future? And will Wisconsin continue to enjoy a reputation for excellence in education?

Colleges in our state are being forced to rely more and more on adjunct staff, part-time non-tenured instructors who are paid minimal salaries and given no benefits.

Our nation was founded on the principle that all citizens are created equal; a good education, essential for maintaining that equality, is worth the cost.

But if our best and brightest decide they cannot afford to teach, who will?