What to say?


Some news analyses of the mixed results of Tuesday’s (April 1st, 2008) various school referendums are in. But it was in the opening lede of today’s piece in the Wisconsin State Journal that especially caught my eye, the ongoing problem of message.

More than half of the public school referendums in the state failed to gain approval from voters in Tuesday ‘s election, sending some districts back to the calculators and calendars.

Of the 61 referendums, 30 passed and 31 failed.

In the tiny Weston School District, a request of $644,000 was denied by 31 votes, 395-364, while in expanding Jefferson, the voters decided the district did not need to spend $45.6 million for a new high school.

In both cases, superintendents thought the schools ‘ messages, while unsuccessful, were clear: Pay now or pay more later. The districts may return with recalculated referendums in the fall because the formula for state aid is not going to change.

I don’t believe this type of reporting/analysis is particularly useful, either for the public or policy makers, for one simple reason; the education community has yet to figure out a way of coming up with a common set of talking points/slogans that will give the voting public, most of whom do not have children in school, a compelling reason for their taxes to be raised (and let’s be truthful here) by less than $30 a year, in the vast majority of referendums. At the same time, I would bet most of these referendums on Tuesday, both the successful ones and those that failed, did not incorporate into their message the fact that school the funding formula is broken. Fortunately, we did not have to go before the voters this year, for reasons explained here, but will WE do any better job than other communities when MMSD will inevitably be facing another multi-million dollar shortfall next year at this time and must ask for voters for relief? The past record on this score is not encouraging.

We still have a balkanized approach to school funding reform campaigns around this state. When will the coalition building over the last ten years begin to pay off?

Robert Godfrey


Filed under "education finance", Elections, Referenda, School Finance, We Are Not Alone

3 responses to “What to say?

  1. Robert
    I agree we need to do better and I think some of us (including you) are trying.

    On AMPS we’ve always made it clear that referenda are a symptom of a sick school finance system. Here and elsewhere we’ve not only asserted the “Wisconsin/Madison Values Education” but also documented the value of education.

    I appreciate your reminder to do better and do more. We do often forget that our audience (the voters) is best approached in certain ways.

    Reading your post, I kept thinking of this article
    and quote:

    “Almost every Republican message contains a simple and direct moral imperative, a stark contrast between good and evil, right and wrong, common sense and fuzzy liberal thinking,” Helfert wrote. “Meanwhile, we’re trying to ignite passions with analyses of optimum pupil-teacher ratios.”

    I think we need both big messages and analyses of best practices.

    Ideas to keep in mind.


  2. George Hesselberg

    You note that you do not find the reporting in the newspaper article “useful” for the “public or the policy-makers,” selecting four paragraphs out of a much longer story that does quote superintendents and others mentioning shared “talking points.” A school board member is also quoted on the message that the formula is broken. The article, which I reported and wrote, is actually quite useful for that reason, and for the reason that you, also, use it to illustrate what you believe to be an important message that needs to be (in your opinion) better presented. Having read through information and material from dozens of the referendums up in 2008, I disagree with your statement that the “broken” idea was not included in the districts’ messages. It was.
    Useful for the public? Yes, as it warns of future referendums because the problems is not going away. Useful for the policymakers? Yes, as winning and losing strategies are evident and can be referenced. Useful for you? Of course, you used it!!!

  3. Robert Godfrey

    Thank you Mr. Hesselberg for your response to my critique.

    I agree with you that your piece did indeed cover the 3 w’s of journalism, the “who,” the “what,” and the “where” of this story. It’s the “why” I was highlighting. Yes indeed, you do mention the “problem.” I found four references to it; “the formula for state aid is not going to change,” “the need to exceed the state mandate in revenue,” “mandated revenue caps,” and “the formula isn’t working.”

    But “why” should that be a problem for these voters? Why shouldn’t government work within some sort of financial parameters? It’s never explained in most pieces written on the subject. Your colleague, Andy Hall, did a really excellent series on school funding a while back. I asked (challenged) him, why not come up with a short 30 word explaination of why school finances are in such crisis and include it in every piece you do on the subject. His answer seemed to be, it’s hard to do. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly, it’s a complex subject, so is most of public policy. But before the voters of this state are really going to understand what is going on they’ll need to grasp the complexity of this issue – and that is not happening. I’m constantly surprised in my more more than 7 years of working on this issue, how most people are still mystified – why are our schools in such a financial mess? We know the die was cast when this public policy was instituted more than a decade and a half ago and our almost complete dependence on property taxes to fund schools was instituted along with the QEO and revenue caps. This is of course well before this most recent of economic downturns, which only exacerbates the Hobbesian choices that school districts around the state are forced to endure. The why of this story has been told, but not nearly enough for the majority of voters to “get it.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s