Students Mobilize in Wisconsin

When more than 100 high school students from Stoughton, Wisconsin, marched en masse out of their classrooms on February 14, they did more than show their support for their protesting teachers  – they took a brave step toward reclaiming their right to a more purposeful education.

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s proposal to limit the collective bargaining rights and reduce the benefits of teachers and other public employees in order to fill a $137 million hole in the state budget quickly garnered national attention. Within days, Stoughton High’s protesters were joined by hundreds of students from high schools across the state and by thousands of young people from University of Wisconsin campuses, from Platteville, from Sheboygan, and from Appleton. They came to put a human face to these issues—and they came to be heard.

The motivation behind the students’ protest in Wisconsin has been questioned by some commentators who have accused teachers and union officials of manipulating them to support the teacher’ position. But Samantha Schroeder, 16, a junior at East Appleton High, called the event "the most inspiring moment of my high school career."

"We cared enough about our future and our teachers to go out there and protest Walker's plan," she said. "Everybody thinks that [teachers] make a lot of money, but they really don't, especially starting teachers, and we have a lot of younger teachers at this school."

What some may not know is that the United States already lags significantly behind other countries in teacher compensation and provision of benefits, which adversely impacts our efforts to recruit and retain high-quality teachers, especially in those areas of science and math. Rather than being treated as a valued national resource to be carefully cultivated, we often take our teachers for granted, as though they are an expendable facet of the public school experience. This is a vastly different approach from that of other countries, such as Finland, where being a teacher is a high-status (and highly paid) profession.  The result is that Finland is universally recognized as having one of the best school systems in the world.

The students of Wisconsin came together and exercised their First Amendment rights for a cause they believed in, engaging in the learning process in a way that has meaning to their lives and their communities. They are an inspiration, and should be applauded for their fervor, not derided.

One thing I have learned as I have toured the country attending screenings of “Race to Nowhere” is that it is often the students who have the best, most creative, and most inventive ideas on how to change our education system and culture--and, often, their voices and opinions are ignored. In producing the film, we set out to give students a voice; it is the power of those voices that is resonating with the hundreds of thousands of parents, educators and policy makers who have attended screenings nationwide. We invite students everywhere to add their voices to the dialogue, and help shape the future of education! Join us on the recently launched social action campaign website (www.EndTheRace.org) to join with other students, teachers, and parents to forge a new paradigm for education.