John Lehman Brings Teacher’s Perspective to Capitol
By Terry Lawler
John Lehman strides into a popular Racine coffee shop
and greets three older men sitting at a nearby table. The four engage
in several minutes of animated conversation before Lehman moves to another
part of the shop.
“Those three guys are retired teachers,”
he says, and then recounts what, where, and when they taught. They’re
also former colleagues because before he was State Representative John
Lehman, he was Mr. Lehman, the teacher. In fact, he still is.
“There’s a little-known clause in the
Racine contract that allows teachers to go on leave of absence for up
to five years for government or political service,” Lehman said.
“In election years, when the Legislature adjourns in June and
reconvenes the following January, I often go back to teaching full-time
for a semester.”
Lehman’s career started in the early 1970s at
Racine Park High School. A few years later, he was working for Gateway
Technical School (now Gateway Technical College), teaching in “storefront
“We were trying to bring education to non-traditional
students, to the disadvantaged and impoverished,” he said. He
also worked in a Guided Study Center, doing tutorials and remedial work.
In 1978, he returned to Racine Unified as an instructor
at Walden III, one of Racine’s alternative schools. In 1992, he
moved back to Park High School, where he was full-time until he began
serving in the Wisconsin Assembly in 1997.
Lehman’s serendipitous entry into politics happened
as an offshoot of his teaching.
“A former student approached me and said, ‘Your
alderman just passed away. Why don’t you run?’” Lehman
recalled. That bid for alderman was unsuccessful, but he eventually
won a seat on the Racine City Council where he served from 1988 to 2000.
As a teacher, Lehman brings a unique insider’s
perspective to education issues. He knows firsthand the impact of large
vs. small class sizes, the need for adequate classroom resources, and
the importance of giving a teacher the freedom to discover the best
ways to reach the children in his classroom. State and federal laws
– from revenue caps to the Qualified Economic Offer law to the
so-called “No Child Left Behind” law – are having
major impacts on all those aspects of teaching.
A major concern for Lehman these days is the troubled
financial state of Racine Unified, a problem faced by most school districts.
“When I first went into the Legislature in
1997, Racine Unified’s situation was very much on my mind. Racine
was an under-spending district, and, consequently, is being penalized
for being frugal,” he said, referring to the fact that state-imposed
school district revenue caps are forever calculated from a district’s
base level of spending in the early 1990s.
“Revenue caps keep duly elected local officials
from making reasonable efforts to educate children,” he said.
On top of that, Racine residents recently voted down
a referendum, and the district now faces layoffs and the loss of its
“I was very disappointed about the referendum’s
failure,” Lehman said. “I wrote a letter to the editor,
talked to a lot of people. Local school boards are in a box, the targets
of all anti-tax feelings. Of all their taxes, people hate property taxes
He doesn’t agree with the Republican approach
to addressing Wisconsin’s tax situation – an approach that
would only worsen school districts’ financial woes.
“I have repeatedly spoken and voted against
TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) in all its forms. ... That would be
terribly harmful to children,” he said.
Lehman applauds Governor Doyle for proposing a budget
that adds $850 million for education without raising taxes. “That
is a strong and proper response to TABOR advocates,” Lehman said.
‘Places of opportunity’
Last fall, Lehman taught social studies at Starbuck Middle School. On
his first day, he experienced a reaffirmation of his belief in public
“It hadn’t occurred to me that Starbuck’s
student body would be so diverse. I guess I just hadn’t thought
about it. When I saw that two-thirds of Starbuck’s students are
minorities, I was struck by the realization that public schools are
wonderful places of opportunity,” he said.
“Public schools are where parents are sending
their children. Parents place their trust in public schools. To me,
that means we’re doing the job.
“Starbuck is a great school,” he said. “Sandy Brand,
the principal, is a very intelligent, no-nonsense leader. She and her
excellent staff provide a good learning environment for their students.”
However, if those middle school classrooms become
more crowded because of revenue caps and the failed referendum, Lehman
has genuine concerns. Each year he returns to teaching, he can feel
the effects of larger class sizes.
“Middle school kids need room to ‘wiggle.’
It was hard enough last fall trying to get to every kid every day. Bigger
classes will mean longer nights for the teachers – more papers
to grade, more lesson plans to create,” he said.
Another concern of Lehman’s is the increasing
emphasis on mandatory standardized tests. The revised federal Elementary
and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – often referred to as the
“No Child Left Behind” law – places a strong emphasis
on standardized testing and punishes students and schools that fail
to meet unreasonable goals.
“I administered a week of tests last fall to
my 7th graders. It seemed to drag on day after day. I lost instructional
time, and I wonder what difference this test made in the education of
Not that Lehman doesn’t want kids to be evaluated.
“I believe that there should be constant local
evaluation of kids. Helping students produce portfolios at Walden III
was a tremendous experience. Those portfolios make more educational
sense than testing.
“People forget what is most important in education.
Education should be student-centered; it should be highly accessible,”
he said. “We should always be stretching ourselves to make learning
available, even to the disaffected. These things can best be accomplished
in the public school setting.”
Lehman said he really enjoys “working as a team
with the parents.”
“I had never taught full-time junior high or
middle school before. I had much more contact with parents than I had
had at the high school level.”
As a state legislator, Lehman keeps working for schools, children, teachers
and education support professionals.
“I’m in the Democratic minority; I always
have been. We do not have the votes. It’s disappointing to me
that the QEO (Qualified Economic Offer) law still exists. I have never
been able to understand or accept a system that discriminates against
one employee group.”
Still, he perseveres. Just like he’s there for
the children when he’s in the classroom teaching, he’s also
there for them when he’s working in the Legislature.
“I’m the ranking Democrat on the Assembly
Education Committee,” he said. “Be assured that when K-12
education is discussed, I’m at those meetings. I’m there.”
Posted June 1, 2005