Elephant in the Room


Maya Cole, Madison School Board member, wrote an op-ed for the Cap Times that provided an excellent piece of analysis on the current state of play at the Capital; the tired old dance routine between the governor and the legislature over how to finance our schools. But this budget season, the sound track has been suddenly revved up due to the stimulus money on the horizon.

The predictable talk of paying for education plays to the citizenry. Don’t raise taxes and do more with less — it’s the same old dichotomy. Lately there’s new irony, as suggested by Gov. Jim Doyle, that school boards should go to the table with “more creative ways” to bargain and without the QEO (qualified economic offer).

As Cole rightly pointed out, this “more with less” canard is trotted out in other guises such as a “creative teacher compensation package.” This meme of, “get more creative,” is meant to be compensation for the often referred to “three legged stool” of the Wisconsin school finance system: 2/3 funding from state revenues (1/3 from local and federal sources), the QEO to limit teacher contract costs and the revenue caps to limit local property taxes. She also astutely noted that the current system originated as a short term plan 16 years ago, and asks, when will it be revised?

Several years hence, the elephant in the room (school finance reform) stands on stage taunting school boards across the state. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards, a member of the coalition of the School Finance Network, has one approach — it’s not in the script this year. We are asked by the governor to accept a watered down plan and continue to be mired in the same old strategies.

What really should keep lawmakers up at night is the dependent nature of these one time (maybe two) short term “fixes,” a “solution” in which Doyle hopes that school districts will remain under the revenue caps while spending federal dollars (TJ Mertz investigated the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s newest numbers here). Cole instead called for a clear departure from the current process of having property owners paying the lion’s share of the costs for schools.

We must be bold and put our spending and revenue practices on the table. Districts across the state have been cutting budgets for over 10 years. Property owners have shouldered the costs to pay for schools. When we add in the confluence of federal mandates (unfunded), demographic shifts, and the dwindling manufacturing in the state, it’s clear we’re in the third act.

Doyle should take his own advice. A budget dependent on one-time federal money for education and transfers to plug holes in budget gaps is shortsighted at best

The Assembly Education Committee will hold a hearing on Tuesday, April 21 1:00 PM at Room 413 North in the Capitol to discuss the School Finance Network education funding reform proposal.

Don’t forget too that on Wednesday April 1, 2009, 6:00 PM at Wright Middle School — the Madison School District will be hosting a “Legislative Informational Community Session” to “provide updates on school funding and state budget issues that affect the MMSD” and “discuss and share strategies on how the community can get involved in advocating for our schools.” More information on the MMSD Legislative Agenda can be found here.

Robert Godfrey

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Filed under AMPS, School Finance, Budget, Take Action, Accountability, Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution, Gimme Some Truth, finance, "education finance"

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