Part 4 in a series of Act 10 success stories

MADISON, Wis. – Think back to early 2011, when thousands of  Wisconsin teachers stomped about the state capitol lawn, shouting angry slogans and singing protest songs.

They gave the definite impression that Act 10, the collective bargaining law proposed by Gov. Scott Walker, was the worst thing that could possibly happen to public school teachers.

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But that’s really not the case, particularly for reputable teachers or those qualified to teach hard-to-fill positions.

Some of them will be making a lot more money in the future, thanks to Act 10.

Wisconsin K-12 teachers are all on one-year contracts now, meaning they can all become free agents at the end of every school year. They are free to bargain with other districts, with no hard restrictions on the type of money they could make.

That wasn’t the case during the bad old days of collective bargaining, when teachers were stuck on union pay scales based entirely on the number of years worked and the number of graduate credits earned.

Most qualified for a modest “step” raise every year, but nothing based on merit.

Teachers could always switch districts, but the money was rarely much better.  They just ended up on the union pay scale in their new districts, where they made roughly the same. Clearly the unions believe that all teachers are of equal value, and deserve equally modest raises.

Teachers were also hesitant to switch districts because they would have been forced to start a new 2-3 year probationary period, and would have lost credit toward retirement benefits negotiated by their unions.

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Now, due to Act 10, union pay scales have been dumped and educators with strong reputations can hit the open market and sell their services to the highest bidder. Evidence suggests that the bidders are already out there, and are willing to pay good money for quality instructors.

Quality teachers can also use their free agent status as leverage when they ask their districts for more money.

“I think your premise that teachers have the ability to individually negotiate their starting pay is correct and we are hearing some stories of teachers using their ability to get higher pay elsewhere to negotiate higher pay with their current employer,” Barry Forbes, associate executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, told EAGnews.

“Typically a teacher might say, ‘I have been offered $5,000 more to take another job, but if you match it, I will stay.’”

Some school administrators expect the rising salaries to attract more top college students into the K-12 system, which will result in an overall improvement in the quality of instruction.

But several also expect the movement of teachers from district to district to be limited by economic forces, like tight school budgets.

On the flip side, they believe there will be a lot of bidding for teachers qualified for hard-to-fill positions, and expect quality teachers across the board to end up making more money.

Daryl Herrick, who retired in June as superintendent of Cedarburg schools, said several teachers have already tried to approach district administrators to negotiate individual deals.

“I’ve told the school board, you’ve got to make sure your compensation is competitive in your market, if you want to attract and maintain the best teachers,” Herrick said.

“The best of teachers are going to be successful,” said Stan Mack, superintendent of Oshkosh schools.

Individual negotiations

Mack told EAGnews he and his staff are currently developing a report about the free agent teacher phenomenon and other trends resulting from Act 10. That report, which is being prepared for the school board, will be completed in the fall.

“We are particularly finding a trend of schools losing high performing, well-trained teachers with five to twenty years of school district experience, being recruited to other school districts paying them five to fifteen thousand dollars more for the same position,” Mack told EAGnews.

Todd Gray, superintendent of Waukesha schools, has already experienced the loss of key teachers to free agency.

He recently lost two outstanding technical education teachers to other districts. They were each lured away with signing bonuses Gray believes were in excess of $10,000. He managed to keep a third tech ed teacher by increasing his salary from the high $50,000 range to the low $70,000 range.

That type of raise was unheard of in the collective bargaining days.

“We’ve lost a number of good teachers,” Gray told EAGnews. “We are going to be having some individual negotiations. If somebody is in a hard-to-fill position and they’re underpaid and talking about going to district X, now we can try to work something out with them.”

Gray thinks the new system will be great for quality teachers, and rising salaries will attract more top college students into K-12 teaching. That, in turn, will gradually improve the quality of instruction, he said.

Studies have shown many current college students entering the education field rank lower in their graduating classes. News about increased compensation should alter that trend.

One key to retaining or attracting new teachers will be a merit pay system that the Waukesha district (and many others) has been developing, Gray said. But that can’t be fully implemented until the state’s new teacher evaluation system is in place in the 2014-15 school year.

The new system will help sort out the teachers who are doing the best job and deserve the most money.

“Now we’re going to attempt to compensate people for what they can do,” Gray said. “The goal is to attract and retain good teachers. If my plan doesn’t get some of them what they can get in other districts, we’re going to lose them.”

But Gray also worries about districts struggling financially to meet the new payrolls, at least those districts that care to keep top teachers around.

“My fear is that the compensation plan, while producing better results, could be really expensive,” Gray told EAGnews. “If we’re going to attract the best and brightest, it could have some scary cost implications.”

‘They put together a better offer’

Robert Reynolds, the soon-to-retire superintendent of the Slinger district, said he lost one valuable teacher to a nearby district a few months ago.

“They put together a better offer,” Reynolds told EAGnews. “Some of it was in money, and some was in a promise to let this person teach higher level classes.”

Reynolds does not believe large numbers of teachers will be jumping to different districts every year. He believes most of the bidding will be reserved for teachers who are qualified for hard-to-fill positions, like STEM teachers (science, technology, engineering and math).

“Superintendents will have to decide every year which free agents to go after and how much they are willing to spend on them,” Reynolds said. “They will have to handle tax money carefully and prioritize. It will be a new challenge.”

Tight school budgets will be a natural impediment to wide-open bidding for teachers, according to Reynolds. But there may be more movement if the economy improves and the state lifts local property tax caps, he said.

“The public would probably see these (free agent acquisitions) as excellent teachers who meet the criteria to make more money,” Reynolds said. “I don’t know how many people who have told me they don’t mind seeing good teachers getting more money.

“Good teachers are going to come out better off post-Act 10 than they were before.”

Forbes, of the WASB, also believes that tight budgets will make teacher transfers less frequent than some might expect.

“As a practical matter, we have not seen much action in the free agent market,” Forbes told EAGnews. “I think the primary impediment is school districts lack the revenue to give the pay increases they want to give to some or all of their current staff. School boards will be reluctant to offer free agents from outside of their district high salaries until there are also able to give their own top performers the same high salaries.

“I think most teachers will be reluctant to change jobs with any frequency. Changing jobs has its own set of costs and most employees would not consider a job change for less than 20 to 25 percent pay increases, particularly if the change in jobs requires the teacher to move.”

On the other hand, Forbes believes many districts will develop incentives to keep their best teachers from leaving, like reinstating extra retirement benefits.