New Iowa Collective Bargaining Law Similar to 2011 Wisconsin Bill

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WISCONSIN  --  The new collective bargaining bill that recently passed in Iowa is similar to what passed in Wisconsin six years ago, and Governor Branstad says it helped improve education in the state.

The Wisconsin bill was part of a budget repair by Governor Scott Walker and Republicans. According to WITI's political reporter Theo Keith, the state avoided a budget crisis, but many teachers are taking second jobs.

One teacher,Kelly O'Keefe-Boettcher's, says as her English classes at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee get bigger, she is able to spend less time with each student.

"That's the threat to education. How long can teachers keep this up?" she wonders.

Five years ago, her life was about to change--although she did not know it at the time. In February 2011, newly-elected governor Scott Walker and legislative Republicans introduced their budget repair bill.

The state had a billion-dollar deficit, and Walker planned to cut school funding. In order to limit the impact on districts, Walker would force public workers to cover part of their healthcare and pension costs.

Most controversially, the plan would end collective bargaining rights for many of these employees.

While the fury is no longer as prominent, Act 10 is now playing out in schools, living rooms, union halls, and the state capitol.

In Mequon-Thiensville, the school district used Act 10 to freeze salaries and change health insurance plans to balance the state cuts. The district now offers "merit pay" that the superintendent says has bumped the average teacher's pay up by 4.6% this year.

"Have we been able to utilize the nuances of the Act 10 legislation to help us bridge financial gaps? Absolutely. Do we think that's a long-term fix to school finance? Absolutely not." says a Mequon-Thiensville administrator.

O'Keefe-Boettcher says her salary has been frozen since 2012, and healthcare and pension contributions have cost her $8-10,000 per year.

"I have a teacher friend who's an Uber driver. I have a teacher friend who bartends. I'm very fortunate in that we haven't had to do that," she says.

The events at the capitol had another impact on schools; prior to Act 10, for every teacher vacancy in the state, there were more than six applicants on average. Now, there are only around three.

Shortages are reportedly worse in specific areas, such as shop and physics teachers.

"The consternation and the conflict that people saw in our state five years ago has had an impact on morale, on people's view on our profession. And wondering if it's a sustainable profession anymore," said an administrator.

Wisconsin union membership has nosedived from 14% of the workforce when Walker took office 8% now.

Of the 129 lawmakers at the capitol in spring 2011, only 70 are still in the legislature. Three senators were recalled over Act 10. One of them, Van Wanggaard, won his seat back.

"I think it was absolutely the right thing for us to do. I would make that decision today, if I had to make that decision again," he said.

Four senators who were frustrated with what they saw as growing division between the parties retired in 2014. One of them was Tim Cullen of Janesville.

"It's a pretty divisive place right now," he said. "It's cordial. People kind of mistake cordiality for working on issues. People are still cordial to each other, they say 'hello, how's the family,' and all that, but nobody's interested in working on issues, unless you're in the majority party."

Wanggaard disagrees, adding that there's plenty of division away from the capitol.

"I still have people who will see me in the grocery store and call me a traitor, or call me names and stuff like that, negative stuff. That's an issue they have to deal with," he said.

School administrators still worry about their budgets, and say the next fix will need to be much different than Act 10.

O'Keefe-Boettcher went into teaching 17 years ago, and now questions if she would still make that same decision today.

"I don't know. I like to think that I would've, that my idealism would've just been that strong, but that's a tough choice for young teachers right now."

To assess Act 10 in the schools, Rob Henken of the Nonpartisan Public Policy forum says each district has to be looked at individually. Henken's research shows there are fewer people in Wisconsin's teaching colleges, but adds that other states are also seeing fewer people in their teaching pipelines.