Ryan Clancy started a business after budget cuts closed his school. He finally gave the man behind those cuts a piece of his mind.
Clancy’s full letter to Walker
Imagine being a public school teacher, watching the state government make the job into a bureaucratic nightmare of dwindling resources, and being virtually powerless to do anything about it. Now imagine quitting education and starting a business, and suddenly the very government that never thanked you as a teacher commends your business for being a great place to work. What would you do?
That’s the situation former teacher and current small business owner Ryan Clancy, of Milwaukee, found himself in when lightning-rod Governor Scott Walker praised his business, Bounce Milwaukee. The irony was not lost on Clancy. Thrilled though he and his wife, Becky, were to see their company on Milwaukee Business Journal’s 2015 list of the Best Places to Work among small businesses, Clancy was floored by Walker’s letter. Clancy responded by sending a letter to the governor’s office, which within a week became a minor viral sensation in a state whose political divide runs deep.
In the letter, Clancy detailed his history as a teacher, and how as a business owner he inspires a sense of respect from people that he feels is sorely missing in the state’s dealings with educators. Clancy also took Walker to task for the apparent sexism of the governor’s letter, which was addressed to Ryan instead of him and his wife collectively.
“Had I not been stripped of my autonomy and respect as an educator, and had my school [not been] closed by budget cuts, I never would have decided to become a job creator, thereby earning the acknowledgement from our governor that I never saw after more than a decade of teaching,” Clancy wrote in the letter to Walker.
Clancy spent most of his adult life in education. As an educator, he instructed teachers for the Peace Corps in the Philippines and then returned to his native city of Milwaukee as a substitute teacher. After that, he became a full-time English teacher for the Professional Learning Institute, a project-based, student-centered Milwaukee public school.
Like many other public school teachers, Clancy felt a lack of support from the state government, embodied by (among other problems) declining budgets and students siphoned off to voucher schools. Despite a high level of poverty amongst students, they excelled. But by 2013, under Governor Walker—whose government had made it clear how little they valued public schools and teachers—Clancy’s school made the tough decision to close its doors.
Walker’s letter to Clancy
But Clancy wasn’t one to sit around and mope. A year later, he and his wife, Becky, decided to open Bounce Milwaukee, an indoor facility where kids (and adults) could stay active in the long Wisconsin winters through rock climbing and by playing laser tag and other team-oriented games. The family-owned business became a local favorite, attracting the attention of the Milwaukee Business Journal.
“When the letter from Governor Walker came, I was flabbergasted: The person most responsible for choking off resources from public schools and public educators was congratulating us for ‘making sure that [our] employees have the resources to be part of the success of the company,’” Clancy tells GOOD. “The worst part, though, was that after more than a decade of searching for the perfect example of irony for my English classes, I finally found it only after I had left teaching. I only hope that my colleagues can make some use of it.”
Clancy was motivated to write the letter not only because he felt “he had to,” but also because he wanted to make some small effort toward bringing the private and public sectors together.
“Walker’s strategy of pitting segments of the public against each other may have been effective in getting voters to the polls, but is destructive to the people and the institutions of Wisconsin,” Clancy says. “When politics is as divisive as it is now (and it need not be), individuals seem to be more willing to speak up than institutions and businesses. My letter garnered many thousands of public endorsements from individuals, but nearly every message [of support] that was sent from other businesses was sent to me privately.”
Clancy believes that some of the letter’s appeal lies in the unfortunate reality that influential private-sector actors rarely come out publicly against government policies that don’t directly threaten them. To Clancy, it shouldn’t be anomalous for people to use their positions to declare themselves allies of public education. Before there can be any real change, Clancy says, these acts must become commonplace.
Despite his and Becky’s success as small business owners, and an opportunity to give Walker a piece of his mind, there is not a single day that Clancy doesn’t miss teaching. His school’s closing was heartbreaking for a variety of reasons, but particularly because Clancy had to endure the pain of looking students in the eye and telling them he couldn’t see their education through to the end.
Becky and Ryan Clancy
“Fortunately, most of them went on to great things,” Clancy says. “Two of my former students currently work here, and one of my colleagues worked with us for months after we opened, and was instrumental in helping us get Bounce Milwaukee off the ground.”
Becky is also still upset about the end of her husband’s teaching career. She makes a point of emphasizing the work Ryan did in his years as a teacher, before the state’s education sentiment went critically toxic.
“He worked with kids who had been repeatedly turned away from other schools for behavior issues, poor grades, nonexistent attendance, etc.,” Becky says.
Clancy once drove a student to the hospital when she was in labor, and waited with the girl until her mother arrived. And when one student witnessed a friend’s abrupt suicide, Clancy took the student’s call in the middle of the night and immediately left to go and “just sit with him,” according to Becky.
“[When] I think back on Scott Walker’s attacks on teachers, and whenever I hear people talking about teachers working ‘six hours a day and only nine months per year,’ I want to introduce them to all those kids,” Becky says. “And the kids who went on to college or awesome jobs, and the kids who come into Bounce to introduce us to their kids and say, ‘I wish you were still teaching so my kids could have you.’”
Clancy’s new life as a small business owner isn’t easy, either. He and his wife are responsible for 18 other livelihoods, and are constantly inundated with paperwork, demands on their time and attention, and “a hundred sources of stress.” And yet, Clancy says, his new job is a “cakewalk” compared to teaching.