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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 classrooms.”

“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 sports programs.

“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 the most.”

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 schools.

“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 kids.”

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

At the Capitol News Archives