There are as many stories to tell about the ongoing protests at the state Capitol are there are protesters tens of thousands. This is a story about three protesters I spoke to today. I noticed them because of their sign: "Sauk Prairie teachers." On the back was another message: "Stop GOP Class War."
All three teach at Sauk Prairie High School. This is the second day in a row that they've come to Madison to protest Scott Walker's move to strip them of their collective bargaining rights and undercut their unions. It probably won't be the last.
Their names are Betty Koehl, Alison Turner and Lynn Frick. Betty has taught at Sauk Prairie High for nearly 30 years; she's a Sauk Prairie native and a graduate of that school. Alison has taught for eight years. It is her second career. From 1993, she worked "in this building as a legislative aide," for state Reps. Mark Meyer and Gwen Moore. Lynn has been a teacher for 26 years, 21 of them at Sauk Prairie.
I ask each of them why they are here, and what they hope to accomplish.
Responds Betty, "I taught social studies for 30 years and, as a citizen and worker, I have to stand up for my rights and show my students that it's important to stand up for what you believe in."
Alison says, "I teach government, and one of my big objectives is teaching about what a good and effective citizen can do and what it means to have a democracy. We talk about these things every day. A good and effective citizen is able to speak out in a democracy." She feels she's modeling good citizenship.
And finally, Lynn: "I've known I wanted to be a teacher since I was 8 years old. I've always believed there is dignity and honor in the profession. This [Walker's initiative] is the height of disrespect, and I can't abide by it.
"I love my students," she continues. "I love being in the classroom. I feel the governor is trying to take that away. I want to be able to go back to my school and my community and hold my head up high."
What is at stake for these teachers is much more than money, or even workplace rights. As they see it, what Walker and the Republicans are trying to do is personal. Relates Lynn, "The saddest thing I saw was a college student with a sign that said, 'I hope I'm not making a mistake in becoming a teacher.'"
It's not a trifling concern. The supporters of Walker's proposal, scarce though they might be, are very explicitly trying to single out teachers for ridicule and recrimination. There are letters to the editor about how well teachers are paid for working just nine months of the year, and how they enjoy such luxurious benefits. Many allege that teachers are flocking to the Capitol on the taxpayers' dime to demand that this undeserved largess continues.
This morning, I was on Wisconsin Public Radio, paired against Steve Prestegard, the editor of a publication called Marketplace Magazine. He openly attacked the teaching profession, talking about their generous salaries and commenting about how everyone knows bad teachers, protected by their unions. He even charged that teachers are using this occasion to pump impressionable young minds full of lies, like by claiming that their pay and benefits really aren't so good.
Now, at the Capitol, the three teachers assure me that compensation is not their main concern. "We're willing to compromise on money," says Betty. Elaborates Lynn, "We want to have a say on schedules, class sizes, working conditions, sick days" - all things that are now part of collective bargaining agreements.
What about the charge that they are ripping off the taxpayers by protesting instead of teaching? Betty has a response to that.
"I have not missed a single day of work all year. I have 120 sick days accumulated. I go to school every day. I work hard. I pay my taxes. I don't think I caused this financial problem."
Yesterday, the three teachers took a personal day, essentially vacation. Today, per the Sauk Prairie School District's edict, they are working without pay. The district has also told them that the names of any teachers who missed work today will be published in the local paper. "I think some teachers saw it as a threat," says Betty, who appears undaunted.
Suddenly a huge cheer goes up from the crowd as a group of students from the UW School of Education parade through the Rotunda. Lynn watches them from the balcony, wiping tears from her eyes.