After greeting the School Finance Network (SFN) plan with little better than contempt and offering a budget proposal that at best slows the bleeding in school finance (after 15 years of steady blood loss), Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle has previewed his own “plan” for fixing school funding. It may be a good starting point for talking (not as good a starting point as SFN’s work), but I don’t think contains the answers to the financial and other struggles of our schools and I don’t like the way it only provides the resources needed to “improve student performance” (which unfortunately will likely be defined by the flawed and limited WKCE) to those districts that meet criteria that have nothing to do with education.
Like many policy proposals these days, it uses rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks. The reward is an opportunity to escape from the revenue caps, to no longer have to cut 1%-2% of educational programing annually. The punishment is to continue under the system that has eaten away at our schools, limited our students’ opportunities and put our state’s future in danger for the past 15 years.
The rewards are tied to the following ill-defined (at this point) policies:
• Join together for the purposes of negotiating union contracts
• Make employees use the state health plan unless the school district already has a plan that is cheaper
• Require schools to agree to a list of practices that would improve student performance
• Provide compensation for teachers that better reflects the needs of individual schools such as those in rural districts that struggle to attract teachers for some subjects
I’m going to leave the contracts, compensation and health insurance aside for now in order to say a few words about #3, the “best practices.”
Doyle cited the work of Alan Odden as the basis for the kind of practices he has in mind. The Wisconsin School Finance Adequacy Initiative Final Report for 2007 has some good ideas about “best practices” based on research and good estimates of the costs of these practices, also based on research. Some of the things in the Odden report are stronger than others and some would be difficult for many districts, but small classes, formative assessments used wisely, teacher coaches, staff development are all good ideas.
What Odden and SFN both propose is funding these practices for all schools. Doyle seems think that access to best practices should be a reward available only to those who get all their ducks in order. I guess the New “New Wisconsin Promise” will be “A Quality Education for Every Child Who Lives in District that Joined with Other Districts to Negotiate Contracts and Limit Health Care Costs.”
I want to make it clear that neither Odden nor SFN wants to simply give the schools more money to do whatever they want (although both do show proper respect for the professional knowledge of our state’s educators). Both include means of targeting money to research based programs and both also propose “accountability” evaluations.
There are ways to target money toward best practices but still make the resources available to all schools (the Student Achievement Gaurentee in Education — SAGE — program is a partial example). You can do categorical aids which can only be spent in certain ways, you can do grants, you can do reimbursements. Instead, Doyle ties the resources for best educational practices to his ideas of the best financial and policy (and probably political) practices. As education policy, this makes no sense.
We’ve had 15 years in Wisconsin under a system of school finance that is based on the politics of tax policies, not education. As a nation, with No Child Left Behind we’ve been punishing schools instead of helping them.
If Doyle’s plan moves forward, I sincerely hope that education is put first and that the stick punishment is put away; that the very good ideas about funding promising educational practices are enacted in a manner that will reach all districts, all schools, and all students in Wisconsin.
Thomas J. Mertz