State Senator Kathleen Vinehout offered some of the most compelling testimony I’ve ever witnessed this past November before the Wisconsin Senate Education Committee hearing on the Pope-Roberts/Breske School Finance Reform Resolution. Her no nonsense, “get er’ done” plaint to the committee, was direct, compelling and simple. Unfortunately, no one in a “leadership” position is prepared to listen, let alone act on her simple plea. (See her testimony at the bottom)

Senator Vinehout offered three fundamental problems with the school funding system that have to be fixed.

1. There’s a fundamental disconnect between what drives school district revenues and what drives school district costs. She gives an example; when 3 students leave from a class of 20, we cut nearly 15%, but the cost of teaching a class of 17 is almost the same as teaching a class of 20.

2. The school funding formula assumes that every student costs the same regardless of background, capability or language skills.

3. The school formula assumes that every school has the same cost structure regardless of whether it has 300 or 3,000 students and regardless of whether it covers 15 square miles or 150 square miles.

These three things work together to provide severe financial problems, particularly for those school districts I represent, the small rural communities that are dealing with declining enrollment and increasing property values.

She goes on to cite some places in her district that suffer disproportionately because they are penalized for having higher than average equalized property values but more than 40% of the student body are from lower middle class households and more than 50% of the community is low income. But under the current formula, those communities are considered wealthy, when in fact they are far from it.

Rural schools are losing ground and they’re facing two choices. They must either spend more out of local resources to provide basic education programs or be satisfied with limited educational opportunities. And the reality is that many of these school districts are so poor, that the first option is not available to them. And sacrificing educational quality should not be a choice.

Vinehout says that not only must Wisconsin be committed to the 2/3rds funding of our schools, but it must also address the long term equity problems with the school funding formula.

School funding reform has to be a priority. We need to put aside our partisan differences and we need to work together to find a plan that puts forth real reform.

-She lays out 4 essential elements for real reform:

1. We have to reduce our reliance on property tax.
2. We have to recognize that some students cost more to educate than others.
3. We have to recognize that school districts in different situations face different costs.
4. And finally, the results have to based on an adequacy study or real costs in specific circumstances.

. . . the information is out there [on how to do this], what’s missing is a commitment to finish the final assignment. We need to make that commitment as a legislature. We cannot afford to let our schools go down. Good schools prepare our children for productive lives, they make for a vibrant economy, they support vibrant communities . . . we can do a better job.

Glen Grothman, arguably the most regressive member of our state legislature, attempted a rhetorical broadside to Senator Vinehout, one that he had leveled earlier in the hearing. Suggesting that Wisconsin was one of the highest spenders on education in the country, he added further that since our income was lower than average “that would seem rather generous.” But it’s false. Based on income, Wisconsin ranks closer to the mode for all states at 17th. A number of our regional neighbors, for example, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana (all not exactly swimming in wealth) spend more on education than we do.

Her response to Senator Grothman was one that has stayed with me for these past couple of months. It’s the kind of response, in both it’s passion and simplicity, a directness that quickened my pulse, a retort that I wish we would see a lot more of from our elected leaders, starting with our Governor and our Senate and Assembly leadership, a riposte that boldly stands up to all the special moneyed interests in this state who are determined to balkanize and weaken our public school system.

The purpose of the bill that we’re looking at today, is what I call, a get-er’-done bill. It doesn’t solve the problem. It says we need to get the problem solved. The first step is to make the commitment to get together to look at the research and say we are going to solve that. . . and were saying let’s talk about this plan, let’s have those hearings, let’s have those discussions, let’s decide as a state if we want to make the commitment to increase the amount of money or if we want to make the commitment to change the formula, we can do this. I’m not going to sit here and say what the solution is . . . we have a problem and we need to solve it. Let’s get our sleeve’s rolled up and get to work.

I’m sorry to write this, but I don’t feel we have the leadership in our state to “get er’ done” for the 2009 budget. I know plenty of folks will take issue with this, but I don’t see any hope for our deeply challenged schools for the 2011 budget cycle either, unless there is the political will to take on a fundamental re-thinking of the way we fund our state government. Property tax reform must happen; but the political capital that will be needed to be burned for such an effort on the part of our leadership – in both parties – is far too much for them to contemplate. Frankly, I think another Progressive Era-type movement will have to take hold before any real action will take place to reform our state’s funding priorities. And that seems too far off into the future for my liking and for the future of the many hundred’s of thousands of our state’s children.

Robert Godfrey

Video from Wisconsin Eye — the full November 15 hearing can be accessed here — , excerpts posted via YouTube, playlist of all Senate hearing videos posted previuosly, here (because of length, this video could not be posted on YouTube). h/t to T.J. for putting the video up.

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Filed under School Finance, Best Practices, Budget, Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution, education, finance, "education finance"

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