Many of you have been following the budget debate here in Madison over the last two months. Sadly, this is not the first time that MMSD has had to cut the budget, however, it is the most dire, as cuts have come to directly effect schools and their neighborhoods. Parents and community members have spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours lobbying the board to save their school or program. Districts across the state are engaging in similar difficult conversations.
While people are quick to show up at school board meetings when budget cuts are being considered, the public officials most able to address the problem are rarely approached. The revenue for school budgets comes from a combination of local and state taxes. However, school boards have no authority to directly determine the level of local spending. Local districts can only raise additional dollars through the passage of an operating levy, which historically in Wisconsin have a 50/50 chance of passing. The legislature and the governor determine the design of the funding system as well as the level of state contribution. They make the rules of the game and control the majority of the purse strings. Rather than organizing to lobby the school board who can only pick among a collection of unpopular options, citizens need to work at the state level and encourage the legislature and the governor to reform the funding system.
There is growing support around the state to fix the funding system. However, nothing will get done until the legislature feels pressure from its constituents. There are a number of relatively easy actions that can be taken to urge the legislature to solve this problem.
Get educated. While the intricacies of the funding system are mind-boggling, it is not difficult to grasp the concepts behind the system. There are many ways to learn about this problem so that you can speak confidently about the issue. Two easy first steps are listed here.
· Connect with others in Madison who are concerned about this problem. abcmadison is a local group that has formed to address this issue. You can join the group by going to yahoo.com and searching for abcmadison. Fill in the information to get on the e-mail list. Plan to attend the next meeting which is scheduled for May 16th, 6:30 in Room 103 of the Doyle Building.
· Visit the MMSD website, http://www.madison. k12.wi.us/. Click on, “Take Action on School Funding,” under Hot Topics. Among other things, you will find information on legislative issues, links to recent newspaper articles about school funding, and how to write a letter to your legislator.
Talk to your legislators and the governor. The legislators who represent Madison support education finance reform. Let them know that you appreciate this support, but are interested in knowing what they are doing to take a leadership role in reforming the finance system. Furthermore, Governor Doyle has not taken a leadership role to solve this problem. He needs to understand that the people of the state of Wisconsin support public education and want to see the problem fixed and that we expect him to do something about it.
Talk to your family, friends, and neighbors. The problem can only be solved if a grassroots effort across the state develops and pressures the legislature and the governor to act. Public schools are a public good, and we all enjoy the benefits of a strong public education system. While it is obvious that parents and students have something at stake, others in the community need to realize that they too are affected by the quality of public education in the community. Talk to others you know, especially people who live in other parts of the state, and ask them to get involved in their community. Furthermore, reform will only happen when citizens from across the state pressure the legislature. Madison cannot do it alone.
Reforming the funding system is no easy task. It requires a long-term, sustained effort to focus the governor and the legislature to address the problem. The more people express their concerns the better the chances of success. Please take a few moments out of your busy schedule to learn more about how the state is impacting the quality of education in Madison and other communities around the state.
Deb Gurke is a citizen representative of the Madison Metropolitan School District Communication Committee. You can reach her at 608-238-2350 or dgurke@wisc. edu.