MADISON, Wis. -

The nation's top education leader is criticizing cuts being made to Wisconsin schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told students and community members at East High School in Madison on Wednesday that the state should be committing more money to higher education and paying teachers double their starting salary.

"Would you be in favor of raising teacher wages to compete with countries that are ahead of us academically?" asked Amelia Soth, a sophomore at East High School.

"I think we have beaten down teachers in our country. We have demonized them, and we have to elevate and strengthen the teaching profession," said Duncan. "To do that, I've talked very publicly about I think we should double starting salaries for teachers. I think a great teacher should be able to make $120,000 to $150,000, not when they're 55 years old, but 32 or 35."

WISC-TV asked Duncan where school districts or the state would find the money for that investment. He said the federal government was doing its part.

"This is about shared responsibility," said Duncan. "So all of us, we have to participate. At the federal level, the president flat-lined the rest of domestic spending and is asking for $1.7 billion in additional money for education because we feel it is an investment, so hold us accountable for that. But we have to do that, states have to do that and districts have to do that as well."

When asked about the idea, Republican Gov. Scott Walker said his policies are part of the solution.

"He wants to pay great teachers a larger amount," said Walker. "Under collective bargaining, you can't distinguish between great teachers and those that are mediocre and poor. The only way you can make those changes, the only way local school boards and superintendents can reward excellence in education, is through the reforms we put in place."

But Duncan countered that wasn't true, and he said school districts like Denver and Baltimore had worked with unions to create programs to pay younger teachers more.

Walker said removing collective bargaining would allow teachers to be rewarded on merit for the first time in the state's history.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction is reporting that the number of teachers and other staff working in Wisconsin schools dropped 2.3 percent this school year.

The data released Wednesday comes in the middle of an ongoing political fight with Walker over the impact of cuts he made to public school funding last year and changes to collective bargaining rights that he said helped districts make up for the losses in aid.

State Superintendent Tony Evers said in a statement there must be a bipartisan investment in public education because losses in school staff erode the public education system.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie told the Wisconsin State Journal that districts have more flexibility thanks to Walker's changes.