My name is Thomas J. Mertz. I have been active in Madison and statewide working for adequate educational funding and equitable educational policies. Like many I see much in Senate Bill 22 that will exacerbate the underfunding of the district schools which will continue to be the source of educational opportunities for the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin’s students, and much that will create greater inequities in access to opportunities. The future of our children and our state depend on investments in education. That this is happening after 17 years under a deeply flawed school funding system and at a time when districts face unprecedented cuts in both state funding and local revenue authority is particularly alarming.
However this is not where I want to focus attention here. I am also a historian of education. It is from this perspective, as well as the perspectives of a parent, citizen and activist that I urge you to reject those aspects of Senate Bill 22 which undermine Wisconsin’s long traditions of non-partisan local control
Our state Constitution states “The supervision of public instruction shall be vested in a state superintendent and such other officers as the legislature shall direct.” Our supreme court has ruled that other officers created by the legislature may not be given powers equal to or greater than the superintendent. The Constitution also specifies that the Superintendent be elected “at the same time and in the same manner as members of the supreme court.” This clause and statutes related to the election of the Superintendent and Boards of Education, as well as those covering those wonderful exercises in direct democracy, School Meetings, are part of a long and careful tradition of separating the governance of education from partisan politics. In 1885, In an an attempt to further separate the political sphere of school governance, Wisconsin went so far as to grant women a limited suffrage, confined to “school matters.”
The creation of a politically appointed Charter School Authorizing Board and Executive Director, with powers and responsibilities rivaling those of the State Superintendent is a heedless and needless break from these traditions. Schools are inherently political, yet Wisconsin’s Superintendents and Board of Education have an admirable record of finding common ground and advancing the common good. Handing control of K-12 schools to people chosen by party leaders introduces a great potential that in decision-making, other than the common good will become primary.
This Board also represents a break from the tradition of local control of education. It opens the door for “sponsors” and the “operators” they contract with to set up networks of schools with limited state oversight and answerable primarily to distant entities. It cannot be forgotten that the resources at the disposal of these entities will be resources not available to the local and locally elected school board.
Schools and school districts define communities; the charter networks enabled by SB 22 threaten local decision-making and the already precarious financial viability of districts. In urban, suburban, small town and rural Wisconsin he health and economic prospects of communities are tied to the strength of our schools.
Schools are also defined by their communities. Through their locally elected Boards of Education and in school meetings, citizens are collectively involved in choosing programs and personnel, in setting priorities and debating budgets, in building facilities and — these days much too often — closing schools.
These ties will be gone with networks of charter schools authorized by a partisan state board and operated by out-of-state corporations.
There are many other aspects of SB 22 that I would like to discuss, but I’ll close by reminding you that in Wisconsin we have some very good public schools and some that need improvement. We also have some very good charter schools and some that need improvement. Local control of charter authorizing is working. The best evidence is that charters are generally no better than district schools and often not as good. They are not in and of themselves “the answer” to our educational problems and in many ways are a distraction from improving the education for the 90%+ of students who will continue in district schools. Don’t let enthusiasm for “choice” and ill-defined “innovation” seduce you into abandoning our traditions, our communities and our schools.
Thomas J. Mertz