A hopeful voice emerged today in an editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal, a venue that wasn’t always convinced in the past of the need for education finance reform.
School finance reform should be at the top of Gov. Jim Doyle’s to-do list before he leaves office.
Reform won’t be easy.
Yet fixing the state’s broken system of paying for public education has always been a monumental task. That’s why so many politicians — Democrats and Republicans — have largely ignored it for so long.
Doyle, who announced Monday he won’t seek a third term, has advantages in pressing for major change now, even if he’s viewed as a lame duck.
The Democratic governor won’t have to fear the political repercussions of reform because he’s leaving anyway. And his fellow Democrats who control the Legislature might be happy to let Doyle take ownership of the thorny and complicated issue. Then Doyle can be the fall guy if special and local interests balk at difficult yet necessary state decisions.
Without reform, school districts will only face more pressure to scale back, threatening the quality of public education that’s so vital to a strong economy.
Doyle and the Democrats lifted state-imposed limits on teacher raises earlier this year. That means the biggest expense for schools — employee compensation — is about to jump.
At the same time, Doyle and the Legislature cut state aid to schools while maintaining school revenue caps. That leaves schools with less money to pay its climbing expenses. And the vise will only get tighter.
We hope Doyle was serious Monday when he pledged to “move forward” with school finance reform despite his looming departure.
Doyle told the State Journal editorial board in February that he would unveil far-reaching changes to state policy on school finance this fall. Without a lot of detail, Doyle suggested he would require savings on health benefits for teachers. He also would allow districts more revenue if they agreed to a list of best practices to improve student performance with accountability for results.
The effect on property taxpayers is unclear.
Doyle has talked about fixing school finances for years. He’s made a few tweaks but never finished the job.
As Doyle said to his staff at Monday’s press conference: “Let’s get to work.”
I myself remain skeptical, but hopeful, Governor Doyle will “finish the job.” We’ll keep you posted of any new developments.