by John Smart
Two things happened recently that raised my hopes for the future:
The first was an assembly held at the Menasha High School on November 14th dedicated to learning about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, that region of Sudan where nomadic Arab militias covertly sponsored by the Sudanese dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, are ravaging the countryside, murdering, raping, burning villages and driving the indigenous people from their land.
Students in teacher Dean Boyer’s social studies classes were asked to select an international issue to study, and they chose the situation in Darfur. They researched the story thoroughly, and in the process became involved with the Darfur Action Coalition of Wisconsin, an organization working to support efforts to help the victims of this bloody conflict — and to end it. The students are selling tee-shirts and raising funds to send to the Coalition.
They also asked the Coalition for someone to come and speak to a student assembly at their high school about the Darfur crisis, and I volunteered to do so. They weren’t sure how many students would choose to attend, and we were all surprised when the handsome Menasha High School Auditorium filled almost to capacity – over 700 students!
The conversation — for that is what it was — lasted for an hour, and the students were attentive and involved, they asked informed questions and related serious concerns. They exhibited genuine empathy for the unfortunate people in that far-off, African land.
I was so exhilarated from spending time with those wonderful kids that I felt airborne to my next destination! If they are representative of the youth of our state and nation, and I hope and believe they are, the future of the state and nation is indeed in capable, caring hands.
I then went from Menasha to Madison, where, the next morning, I was one of sixty plus citizens who testified at a hearing of the State Senate Committee on Education.
The November 15th public hearing had to be moved to a larger room in the Capitol to accommodate the ever-increasing crowd, and they still had to have an overflow room with a television monitor so that attendees could follow the proceedings. The turnout clearly demonstrated growing public interest in doing something constructive to support our schools.
The purpose of the hearing was to examine Senate Joint Resolution 27, co-sponsored by Assembly Representative Sondy Pope-Roberts, of Middleton, Senator Roger Breske, of Eland, 14 other senators and 43 other assembly representatives. All but one of the people testifying were in support of the resolution.
The resolution calls for the legislature to recognize that the system we’re using to pay for our schools is not fair and equitable, and simply does not work — that it underfunds our schools while throwing too much of the burden on the backs of property taxpayers, who are understandably rebelling. The resolution refers to a number of new funding formulas that all deserve consideration, and it sets a deadline for the legislature to examine these, and any others, and pass a new compromise plan for school funding reform by a deadline date of July 1, 2009.
Several members of the committee, notably Senators Glen Grothman, of West Bend, and Mary Lazich, of New Berlin, insisted on attempting to debate the merits of one or another of the plans, asking how much they would cost and where the money was going to come from. They had to be reminded repeatedly that this resolution only sets a deadline and doesn’t endorse any specific plan.
What lifted my spirits was the enthusiasm of the people attending and the seriousness with which the senators responded. Many of us have struggled for a long time to get the legislature to recognize the problems that the current funding system is causing for our schools, and finally, it is beginning to look like that light at the end of the tunnel may not be an oncoming train!
The fight isn’t over though, not at all. It is probable that the resolution will pass the committee and the senate, but it is still a question as to whether or not the Speaker of the Assembly, Mike Huebsch, will allow this resolution to even come to the floor of that body for debate.
As usual, it is important for citizens to voice their opinions. Letters and phone calls to our legislators actually do have an effect. It is the voice of their constituents that has brought legislators back to this issue again, and more are needed. Please be a part of that “squeeky wheel!”
The students of Wisconsin, like those remarkable young people at the Menasha High School, deserve the best education that we can provide for them. It’s a question of priorities, and to my mind, they are on top of the list.
John Smart serves on the Park Falls School Board, is a member of the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the United Nations, the UN Association of the USA and Citizens for Global Solutions. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan from 1995 through 1998 and chairs the Democratic Party of Price County.