Dropouts May Get to Teach High School in Wisconsin

Teenagers who drop out of high school in Wisconsin may not be doomed to a life of flipping greasy burgers and getting sprayed with hot oil as they prepare another batch of fries.

Before the end of June, they might be able to get jobs as high school teachers.

Seriously.

The Wisconsin Legislature has to wrap up its 2015-2017 biennial budget by the end of the month. It is a massive two-year document filled with thousands of pages of amendments, including one that would allow high-school dropouts to teach high school classes.

No kidding.

Public education in Wisconsin has served as a tinderbox of emotions in the budget debate. It’s a yearlong affair that is in its final days. The expansion of charter schools, a voucher system for private education and changes to tenure rules for university professors have served as matches that lit acrimonious arguments. In the midst of these serious politics debates, Rep. Mary Czaja (R) slipped in a proposed amendment at 1:30 a.m. during the last day of session before Memorial Day weekend that would allow high school dropouts to teach certain classes.

And she is serious, too.

Czaja does not have any argument with the rules that mandate a bachelor’s degree for anyone hired to teach Wisconsin’s public school students in subjects like math, sciences, social studies or English in the sixth through 12th grades.

But under her proposal, anyone with “relevant experience” could be licensed (and paid) to teach in any of what are described as “non-core” academic subjects in those grades.

It only makes sense to Czaja to open the doors to more people to teach Wisconsin’s children because the state is having so much trouble finding qualified teachers. The problem, Czaja argued, is especially acute in rural areas like the one she represents.

Any truth to that?

“Heavens no,” Jerry Fiene, the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, told the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee. “This totally destroys any licensure requirements that we have in Wisconsin. It is very concerning.”

Czaja thinks Fiene and those like him are painting their Doomsday scenario for public education with too broad a brush.

"The districts are going to be the ones that hire these people, and I firmly believe that they're not going to throw somebody in there that isn't doing a good job," Czaja told the Journal Sentinel. "This is just flexibilities. They don't have to use it."

To be sure, this is just one debate over the future of public education that is being heard in Wisconsin this month. Gov. Scott Walker (R) wants to change the tenure rule for professors, and he has proposed trimming $300 million from the University of Wisconsin System. The question of funding public education is a never-ending debate, as is the clash of a voucher system to help parents pull their kids out of public schools.

But it is the idea that high-school dropouts would be able to teach Wisconsin’s children that has really inflamed educators.

“It essentially says whoever you hire will be licensed, and for me that is a huge step in the wrong direction,” Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers said on the Wisconsin Radio Network. “It is breathtaking in its stupidity.”

“This represents a race to the bottom,” Evers said.

Teachers unions don’t like this either. The Wisconsin Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is on Evers’ side in this debate.

UW-Madison student Briana Schwabenbauer, an aspiring teacher and a member of the Student WEA, has launched an online petition asking lawmakers to “Say NO to lowering teaching standards in Wisconsin.”

“I felt discouraged when I first heard of this proposal,” Briana said. “It was belittling to hear not just one person, but an entire committee of people sing the out-of-tune song that anyone can teach.”

A Wisconsin public school teacher wrote on Rep. Czaja’s Facebook page, “I've been teaching for 25 years and have impacted hundreds of students. No degree needed to do my job? Shame on you.”

Another follower of her Facebook page asked Czaja, “I know how to cut, sew, use a band aid, give out Tylenol. Does that make me qualified to be a surgeon? Pretty sure the answer is no. How could we, as a society, think anything less of teachers and teacher licensure?”

Czaja did not respond to either Facebook comment.

But if this survives the budget debate in the Wisconsin Legislature and is blessed with a signature from Gov. Walker, fear not high-school dropouts, you could have a well-paid future (but not too well paid as long as Gov. Walker is in office) in a Wisconsin public school classroom.

And, that is exactly what Tony Evers and his Department of Public Instruction, along with unionized teachers, are afraid of.

“If you’re a buddy of the superintendent or the principal,” Evers said on a Wisconsin Public Television show, “you go in and say, ‘Gosh, I want to teach here,’ he or she says yes, you’ve got a license.”