A Letter to Scott Walker From a Wisconsin Teacher

| Sat Mar. 12, 2011 6:52 PM EST

Via one of our Tumblr chums, Positively Persistent Teach, here's an open letter from one high school social studies teacher, Eric Brehm of Endeavor, Wisconsin, to Gov. Scott Walker, asking about the impacts of his "budget repair bill." It's lengthy and worth readingand passing onin its entirety. You can also read up on Brehm at his blog, Bang the Bucket. In his own words:

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On Saturday, February 19, 2011, I sent the following letter to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.  It has since been reposted and blogged a number of times, for which I am grateful.  However, this blog would not be complete unless I included a copy of it here.  And so, here is where it all began:

To the Duly-Elected Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker (and anyone else who gives a hoot):

It has only been a week, and I grow weary of the political struggle that your Budget Repair Bill has caused.  I am tired of watching the news, though I have seen many of the faces of those I hold dear as they march on the Capitol.  I am tired of defending myself to those who disagree with me, and even a bit tired of fist-bumping those who do.  I am tired of having to choose a side in this issue, when both sides make a certain degree of sense.  And so I offer you this desultory (aimless or rambling) philippic (angry long-winded speech), because at the end of the day I find that though this issue has been talked to death, there is more that could be said.  And so, without further ado, here are my points and/or questions, in no particular order.

1.  You can have my money, but...  Ask any number of my students, who have heard me publicly proclaim that a proper solution to this fiscal crisis is to raise taxes.  I will pay them.  I have the great good fortune to live in a nation where opportunity is nearly limitless, and I am willing to pay for the honor of calling myself an American.  Incidentally, Warren Buffett, the second richest man in the nation (and a Democrat) agrees with me.  Your proposed Budget Repair Bill will cost me just under $3000 per year at my current salary, with the stated goal of saving $30 million this year on the state budget.  I say, take it.  You can have it.  It will hurt me financially, but if it will balance the budget of the state that has been my home since birth, take it with my blessing.  But if I may, before you do, I have some questions.

If you wished to trim $30 million off of the budget, that works out to about $6.91 per Wisconsin taxpayer. So I must ask: Is it fair that you ask $3000 of me, but you fail to ask $6.91 of everyone?

According to the 2009 estimate for the U.S. Census, 5,654,774 people live in the state of Wisconsin.  Of those, 23.2% are under the age of 18, and presumably are not subject to much in the way of income tax.  That still leaves about 4,342,867 taxpayers in the state of Wisconsin.  If you wished to trim $30 million off of the budget, that works out to about $6.91 per Wisconsin taxpayer.  So I must ask:  Is it fair that you ask $3000 of me, but you fail to ask $6.91 of everyone?  I know that times are tough, but would it not be more equitable to ask that each taxpayer in the state contribute an extra 13 cents a week?

Would you please, kindly, explain exactly how collective bargaining is a fiscal issue?  I fancy myself to be a fairly intelligent person.  I have heard it reported in the news that unless the collective bargaining portion of this bill is passed, severe amounts of layoffs will occur in the state.  I have heard that figure given as 6,000 jobs.  But then again, you’ve reportedly said it was 10,000 jobs.  But then again, it’s been reported to be as high as 12,000 jobs.  Regardless of the figure, one thing that hasn’t been explained to my satisfaction is exactly how or why allowing a union to bargain collectively will cost so much money or so many jobs.  Am I missing something?  Isn’t collective bargaining essentially sitting in a room and discussing something, collectively?  Is there now a price tag on conversation?  How much does the average conversation cost?  I feel your office has been eager to provide doomsday scenarios regarding lost jobs, but less than willing to provide actual insight as to why that is the case.  I would welcome an explanation.

If I keep going at my current pace, I will work 2,720 hours this school year, 136% to 156% as much as your average hourly worker.

Why does your concern over collective bargaining, pensions, and healthcare costs only extend to certain unions, but not all?  Why do snow plow drivers and child care providers and teachers and prison guards find themselves in “bad” unions, but firefighters and state police and local police find themselves in unions that do not need to be effected by your bill?  The left wing news organizations, of course, state that this is because these are unions that supported your election bid, while you seek to punish those unions that did not; I would welcome your response to such a charge.  You have stated that the state and local police are too vital to the state to be affected.  Can I ask how child care, or prison guards, or nurses or teachers are not vital?  Again, I would welcome a response.

Though you are a state employee, I have seen no provision in your bill to cut your own pension or healthcare costs.  The governor’s salary in Wisconsin was about $137,000 per year, last I checked.  By contrast, I make about $38,000 per year.  Somewhere in that extra $99,000 that you make, are you sure you couldn’t find some money to fund the state recovery which you seem to hold so dear?  As you have been duly elected by the voters of Wisconsin, you will receive that salary as a pension for the rest of your life.  I don’t mean to cut too deeply into your lifestyle, but are you sure you couldn’t live off $128,000 per year so that you could have the same 7% salary reduction you are asking certain other public employees to take?

2.  Regarding teachers being overpaid and underworked.  I don’t really have many questions in this regard, but I do have a couple of statements.  If you haven’t already figured it out, I am a teacher, so you may examine my statement for bias as you see fit.  I admit I find it somewhat suspect that teachers are mentioned so prominently in your rhetoric; those protesting at the Capitol are indeed teachers.  But they are also students, and nurses, and prison guards, and plumbers, and firefighters, and a variety of other professions.  If you could go back to “public sector employees,” I would appreciate it.  But as far as being overpaid and underworked...I grant you, I have a week’s vacation around Christmas.  I have a week off for Spring Break.  I have about 10 weeks off for summer.  With sick days and personal days and national holidays and the like, I work about 8.5 months out of every year.  So perhaps I am underworked.  But before you take that as a given, a couple of points in my own defense.

As an educator, I understand how difficult it can be to get young people interested in politics. You have managed to do this in the space of one week.

The average full-time worker puts in 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, with two weeks’ vacation time.  That makes for a grand total of 2000 hours per year.  Part of the teachers’ arguments regarding their time is that no one sees how many hours they work at home to grade papers, or create lesson plans, or things of that nature.  I am in a rare state, in that I am not one of those teachers.  I work an hour from where I live, and I like to keep my work at work.  I, therefore, do not bring work home with me, but rather stay at school, or come in early, so that I can grade papers or create lesson plans while at school.  So I am more prepared than most to explain the hours it takes to do my job.  I also supervise an extra-curricular activity (as many teachers do), in that I serve as the Drama Coach for my school.  The school year, so far, has lasted for 24 weeks.  I have, in that time, averaged 78 hours per week either going to school, being at school, or coming home from school.  If you remove my commute, of course, I still average 68 hours per week, thus far.  That means I have put in 1,632 hours of work time this year, which works out to over 80% of what your average full time worker does in a calendar year.  If you include my commute, I’m over 90%.  If I keep going at my current pace, I will work 2,720 hours this school year (or 3,120 hours if you include my commute).  That means I work 136% to 156% as much as your average hourly worker. 

As to underpaid — I’m not sure I am underpaid in general, though I do believe I am underpaid in terms of the educational level expected to do my job.  I have two Bachelor’s Degrees, and will be beginning work toward my Master’s this summer.  By comparison, sir, you never completed college, and yet, as previously stated, you outearn me by almost $100,000 per year.  Perhaps that is an argument that I made the wrong career choice.  But it is perhaps an argument that we need to discuss whether you and others like you are overpaid, and not whether teachers are.

3.  Regarding the notion that teachers that are protesting, or legislators currently in Illinois, are hurting the state.  Very briefly, if I may:

Teachers have been accused of shirking their duties by protesting for what they believe to be their rights instead of being in school.  The argument has been, of course, that no lessons have been taught when classes aren’t in session.  I must submit that lessons in protest, in exercise of the First Amendment right to peaceable assembly, in getting involved as a citizen in political affairs, have been taught these past few days.  The fact that they haven’t been taught in the classroom is irrelevant.  Ultimately a very strong duty of the school system is to help students become citizens — I think that has clearly happened this week.

As to the legislators, it seems to me as though they feel their constituents deserve to have a length of time to examine the proposed bill on its merits, not vote it straight up or down three days after it was presented.  As the current budget does not expire until June, this seems to me like the only response left them in light of your decision to fast-track the bill without discussion.  Give them another option, and perhaps they will come back.  I can’t say that I agree with their decision, but I can say that I understand it.

4.  Regarding the notion that protestors at the Capitol are rabble-rousers and/or thugs.  Such name-calling on the part of conservatives in the state and the conservative media could be severely curtailed if you would speak out against it.  True, most of the people protesting, if not all, are liberals.  Historically, liberals have always tended to think that they have far more support than they actually do.  They also (in my opinion) have a tendency to get extremely organized about three months too late, if at all.  So you can fault them for their decision-making, but I would ask you to speak out against the notion of thuggery.  Again, very briefly:

So far, 12 arrests have been made.  Estimates say there were about 25,000 people at the Capitol today, and about 20,000 yesterday.  Let’s be conservative (mathematically) and say that 40,000 people protested over two days.  That would mean that officers arrested .0003% of all protestors.  By almost any definition, that is an extremely peaceful demonstration, and of course you are aware that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of peaceable assembly for a redress of grievances.  So in the main, these people have done nothing wrong.

5.  If I may provide you with a sense of history.  You work in the largest and most magnificiently appointed state capitol in the nation, built by Bob LaFollette (a Republican).  You work in the same building where Phil LaFollette (a Republican) helped guide Wisconsin out of the Great Depression.  You work in the same building where Gaylord Nelson (a Democrat) was the first in the nation to offer rights to unions of state employees, rights that you now seek to overturn.  And you work in the same building where Tommy Thompson (a Republican) provided more state funding to education than any other governor before or since.  Are your current actions truly how you would choose to be remembered?

6.  Finally, Governor, a note of thanks.  Whatever the outcome of the next several days, you deserve a certain degree of credit.  As an educator, I understand how difficult it can be to get young people interested in politics.  You have managed to do this in the space of one week.  A number of Wisconsin’s youth support you.  A number of them do not.  But whatever else can be said of you, you have them paying attention, and thinking about voting, and walking around the Capitol, and turning out to be involved.  You have taught your own lessons this week, Governor, and that has its own value.

Thank you for your time,

 Eric Brehm

XXX North XXXXXX Street

Endeavor, WI 53930