SAGE on the (Chopping) Block

chp_socratesAs the struggles of underfunded education in Wisconsin continue some of our best programs are being placed in danger.  This is starting to happen with the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) initiative and like so much else will be worse in the 2010-11 district budgets.

SAGE includes four components:

  • class sizes of no more than 15:1 in grades K-3;
  • increased collaboration between schools and their communities;
  • implementation of a rigorous curriculum; and
  • improved professional development and staff-evaluation practices.

All of these are to one degree or another “best practices” backed by research and common sense.

While good, SAGE isn’t perfect.  Only a limited number of SAGE contracts are available, meaning that some districts don’t have access to the program and others like Madison must make hard choices about where to implement SAGE.   SAGE is supposed to be targeted to children in poverty, but there are no direct strictures requiring a certain number or percentage  of students in poverty in the SAGE contracts.  Unlike the more comprehensive poverty aids in the School Finance Network plan, SAGE is limited to only those students in the earliest grades.  On top of all this, SAGE is woefully underfunded, requiring extensive money from district’s general operating budgets for implementation in in all schools but those with the highest poverty levels.

I’ve written about these issues before; recent events have made them more relevant than ever.  SAGE is currently funded by the state at $2,250 per low income student in a SAGE classroom.   If you have nearly 100% poverty this funding covers the cost of the additional class rooms and teachers needed to reach 15-1 ratio; as the poverty percentage goes down, the need for local funding to reduce class size goes up (see some calculations here).  One unfortunate ‘solution” that has been broached is to concentrate students in poverty in certain schools.

Madison has mostly used a percentage over numbers approach, meaning that SAFE contracts have been assigned in a way that serves the schools with the higher percentages of students in poverty, but not the highest numbers of students in poverty.  This is because implementing SAGE in a large scho0l with a middling poverty level is expensive.  I think (I’m not 100% sure) , in part due to this approach the MMSD budget passed in May projected that there would be 100 fewer children in poverty in Madison SAGE classrooms.

The reality is that as general operating budgets get squeezed, the local funds won’t be there, even the promise of the SAGE partial reimbursement will not be enough and districts will abandon the program.  As 2009-10 district budgets are finalized, SAGE is on the chopping block.

A school in Wisconsin Rapids came close to losing SAGE because they couldn’t meet the 15-1 ratio, but the Department of Public Instruction gave a temporary waiver.  The future status is still undecided.

Superior is also requesting a waiver.  Without the waiver, the district will have to spend an additional$240,000 to meet the 15-1 ration.   Even if the waiver is granted,  Superintendent Janna Stevens “intends to assemble a group to look closely at SAGE and determine the program’s future in Superior.”  this doesn’t sound too promising.  Business manager Jack Amadio has described the general operating fund as cut “to-the-bone” and projects “another tough year in 2010-11.

“We’ll start looking ahead because we know we’ll have to trim some more out of 2010-11,” Amadio said. “We’ll try to do whatever we can. Maybe we’ll try to limp through for a year, and hopefully in the next biennium, the 2011-13 biennium, there might be a rebound.”

It will take more than hope, it will take action on the part of our elected officials.

Stevens Point has a referendum on the ballot Nov. 3.  If that does not pass, SAGE will be among the items considered for cuts in 2010-11.

I’m guessing SAGE will be targeted for cuts in many more districts in 2010-11.   This is what is happening with class size reduction in California.  California once had a proud public school system, but the anti-tax crowd drowned out common sense, state support kept getting cut and now points of pride are getting scarce.

We can’t let Wisconsin go down this path.  Somebody has to stand up for the good public education does and advocate for full funding.  Recent events and statements indicate that it won’t be our elected officials of either party, so it has to be you and me.  Get involved.

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, finance, Local News, Referenda, referendum, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized

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