Category Archives: AMPS

Off and Running, for District 13 Common Council

For more information, click the image.

It is official, the last of the paperwork is filed and on February 15 the voters of the 13th Common Council District in Madison Wisconsin will see my name on on the ballot (as TJ Mertz).  Exciting and scary.

I’ve spent the last few years working primarily on education issues. Municipal issues will be a change, but not that big of a change.  My activism in education has been about addressing inequalities, providing opportunities, enhancing democratic participation and promoting good governance and smart budgeting.  These are exactly the things I want to do on the Common Council.

I also want AMPS readers to know that I’m not  leaving education behind.

The city is directly involved in education through libraries, early childhood programs and neighborhood centers.  I want to be part of supporting and improving these efforts.    I also recognize that schools alone are not sufficient (see the Broader, Bolder statement).  Children’s abilities to take advantage of  educational opportunities are impacted by issues of housing, employment, policing, health care and much more.  As an Alder, I’ll make these connections and work for policies and economic development to help all our children.

I will continue to serve on the Board of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and advocate for adequate educational investments throughout Wisconsin.

Regular readers of AMPS will have noticed that there has been little or no activity the past months.  The race for Alder is the big reason why.   It is my intention to continue with AMPS, but I could use some help.  If you’d like to write for AMPS, drop me  a line or leave a comment.

I could also use some help with the Alder race.  You can volunteer or donate by clicking these links.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Labor Day Mega Music Post

I need to find the time to do some serious blogging, but meanwhile some music for Labor Day.  Don’t forget to come to LaborFest on Monday (at the Labor Temple, Park  & Wingra, Noon to 5:30).  Good people, good music, good food.  Stop by the CAST table, say hey and sign the Penny for Kids petition.

The Dubliners, The Molly Maguires

Utah Phillips, There is Power In The Union

The Clash, Career Opportunities

Lee Dorsey, Working In The Coal Mine

Roy Orbison, Working For The Man

Dolly Parton, 9 To 5 (Live)

Bruce Springsteen & The Seeger Sessions Band, Pay Me My Money Down

The Gravedigger n the Teacher, Union Maid

Merle Haggard, Workin’ Man’s Blues

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under AMPS, Best Practices, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, National News, Pennies for Kids

Back to School Music

With the Madison Metropolitan School District set to open on Wednesday, time for a couple of back to school music videos.

Chuck Berry, “School Days.”

Fela Kuti, “Teacher Don’t teach Me No Nonsense.”

Thomas J. Mertz

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Songs for Independence Day

Time for the annual Independence Day AMPS music post (previous years here and  here).

Elvis Presley, “American Trilogy”

Prince, “America”

T-Rex, “Children of the Revolution”

Thomas J.  Mertz

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Taxes (and Schools)

From "Wisconsin's Revenue Gap," Institute for Wisconsin's Future

I’ve been known to chide Wisconsin’s lawmakers for their reluctance to enact or even talk about essential revenue reforms.  It is only fair to note when they do the right thing and the good they’ve done by doing the right thing.

Yesterday the Legislative Fiscal Bureau released the April 2010 tax collection data.  Two big pieces of good news here.  First, collections are only down 1% from last year and that means that there will be no need for a budget reconciliation and the cuts to shared revenues and state services it would surely bring.  Second, corporate taxes are up by 32.4% over last year.

Too many moving pieces and not enough info to know in much detail, but the closing of the Las Vegas loophole by enacting Combined Reporting in the last biennial budget  certainly contributed to this.  A very positive step in returning some balance to our revenue system and staving off further cuts to essential investments and services.  Good work.

As the chart at the top indicates, there is still more work to do.  There are other loopholes to close, and other places to look at the balance among taxes paid in Wisconsin.  As always, the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future/Wisconsin Council on Children and Families Catalog of Tax Reform Options for Wisconsin. is the place to start (these organizations also deserve much of the credit for pushing lawmakers on Combined Reporting).

In a related story, Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Tom “No New Taxes (for now)” Barrett is not getting suckered into abandoning  Combined Reporting because of  ignorant attacks from those vying for the GOP and Tea Party mantle(s) (and here)..

On the national front, The Cap Times has a good follow up to the sales tax for education (read Penny for Kids) vote in Arizona, with your intrepid blogger offering some thoughts.  This also came up in the WORT diiscussi0n of school finance (listen here and try to make the WORT Block Party this Sunday ).  Also of note is the lawsuit over school funding in California and the continued need to advocate for the Harkin Education jobs proposal.

Above, I said there is still work to do.  It isn’t only because to the previous trends in corporate taxation it is because Wisconsin’s revenue and school finance systems are broken, and till they are fixed school cuts will continue all around the state.  Here are some recent examples:

Five Marshfield teachers cut to balance district’s budget

Manitowoc School Board OKs teacher, aide layoffs

36 teachers will receive layoff notices

Teachers under fire as districts deal with tight budgets

Budget, teacher cuts create turmoil for districts in area

School district bankruptcies seen as possible

Much more work to do.  Get started!.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", AMPS, Budget, education, finance, Local News, National News, Pennies for Kids, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized

On the Radio — 5/19/2010, Noon, WORT

Along with Joe Quick (Legislative Liaison for MMSD) and Rebecca Kemble (Parent Activist), I’m going to be on “A Public Affair” hosted by Esty Dinur on WORT at Noon today (5/19) talking about state and local school budget issues.  Listen and call in.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", AMPS, Budget, education, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Pennies for Kids, School Finance, Uncategorized

Coming Transformations

Credit: Computer Vision Laboratory, Columbia University

I want start off with one of the most egregious aspects of a horribly underfunded public school system and what acts of desperations that can ensue, followed by some “respectable” examples of education reform percolating around the country and ending with the next big “shining object” that will command our full attention here in Wisconsin shortly, whether we like it or not.

We begin with Charlotte Hill’s recent reporting at the change.org site that highlighted a distressing development; four inner-city schools in Detroit are “partnering” with Walmart

to offer a course in job-readiness. Student participants earn school credit while learning how to hold down one of the superstore’s infamously low-paying positions. When the bell rings at 3:30, off the students go to their new entry-level jobs, where they work for minimal pay.

Their public school system, like the majority in the country, are struggling. They need money. Enter Walmart, licking their chops to come in and fill the breach. And in their world, students will be conditioned to accept a work environment that is “notorious for its low wages, discriminatory [in its] treatment of female employees, mass lay-offs and refusal to acknowledge, much less support, employee unions,” says Hill. 29 schools were closed this past fall, with 40 more due to be shuttered in the coming year – “financial need — not educational integrity — is driving the decision.”

At the end of the day, Walmart is the true winner in this partnership. Hill reported that

According to the Department of Labor, “Employees under 20 years of age may be paid $4.25 per hour during their first 90 consecutive calendar days of employment with an employer.” From my calculations, 11 weeks of training amounts to just under 90 days of employment. Looks like whichever Walmart executive made the decision to partner with Detroit schools was just living by the corporation’s own slogan: “Save money. Live better.”

As Alex DiBranco pointed out:

The real message goes more like: Your educational system has failed you. Because of mass class inequities, you will not be offered opportunities to succeed in life. In fact, we’ve so given up on you, that even though you still come to school, we’re going to turn school into training on how to hold down the worst job possible and suffer all sorts of labor abuses. Just in case you’ve made it to your teenage years without realizing this, know the world doesn’t care about you, and you might as well give up on your dreams now.

Proposals for enormous changes in the school system have always been a feature during times of economic crisis, but you have to stop and catch your breath at times when some of the more “throw the baby out with the bathwater” schemes get a serious airing from our self-appointed “out of the box” thinkers on education “reform,” or, as one of our local school board candidates would prefer, “transformation.” Take for example Utah state senator, Chris Buttars. He has introduced a bill that would eliminate 12th grade in all public schools in his state, saving, according to Buttars, $60 million dollars from a state shortfall of $700 million. You might say to yourself that such a large hatchet would appear to have a fairly minimal impact on such a large deficit, and would therefore be dismissed out of hand, but you would be wrong. Eight other states are contemplating similar moves. It also wouldn’t probably surprise you to learn that the Gates Foundation is providing the initial planning grant to get this initiative off the ground. And while the impetus for having a so-called board exam system in which students must achieve some core competencies, instead of seat time in a classroom, has some laudatory elements to it, the larger gorilla in the room is that it will take an enormous amount of one-time stimulus money just to get this initiative off the ground in these handful of states.

A question I continue to ask is: why, in all these reports on new initiatives for “reform” (or if you like “transformation”), is it rarely mentioned or raised as a concern, the issue of how these initiatives will be paid for in a long term, sustained way?

Getting back to the actual students who are at the center of this maelstrom of education innovation, as Jessica Shiller has noted:

Seems like the students that would benefit most from having public school for longer would get left out in the cold. Graduating in 11th grade and having to look for a job in a dismal market is not much of an option. Going to community college or a vocational program could offer more, but with graduation rates pretty low, around 25% — to the point that the Gates Foundation is getting involved to help community colleges do better by their students — this also doesn’t seem like a suitable substitute for a full high school education.

Students who don’t do well early in high school might be left with dead-end options. At least if those students have a couple more years, they can try and improve their grades for college, but under these grade elimination plans, there is no room for that. Young people will be sorted into vocational and college-bound tracks at age 15. No more messing around kids: decisions about your futures will be made very early on in life. So much for the late bloomer.

It is rumored that shortly the beautiful minds behind the Wisconsin Way initiative, will finally roll out their plan, one that will have been already largely crafted in the minds of its corporate interests from the get go when they first held their state-wide forums a couple of years ago. It is likely that the fait accompli plan will contain much that is good, some that seems “sensible,” inducing the pundits to skim past the troubling parts in their embrace of “transformations.” For an excellent primer on the Wisconsin Way, please reread the warning signs that Thomas Mertz was writing about already 2 1/2 years ago.  Also, look for his excellent coverage of this roll out/fall out to come.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t take great creative thinking to know that the oxygen will be largely sucked out of all the hard work of analyses and stakeholder development that WAES has been engaged in for over a decade and its more recent Pennies for Kids initiative. Perhaps, when the chips are comfortably resting on the ground for a while, some parts or aspects of actual education finance/tax reform will get a hearing. But as we’ve seen in the past, nothing gets done in an election year. Sadly, the struggle for real finance reform, will continue for a long time to come.

Robert Godfrey

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, AMPS, Best Practices, Budget, education, Elections, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, National News, Pennies for Kids, School Finance, We Are Not Alone

The Fix Is In

Bob Herbert of the New York Times has been doing an admirable job of outlining the human costs of our neglected infrastructure in his weekly columns. On Saturday he highlighted the conditions in schools throughout the country. And while he noted that getting the nation’s schools up to date is a huge undertaking, it represents only a small part of the overall infrastructure challenge we face as a nation. While highlighting a school in Pennsylvania built in 1861, with asbestos encrusted walls and dodgy electrical wiring, he noted the difficulty in getting good data on the physical condition of the country’s schools.

Lawrence Summers, President Obama’s chief economic adviser, has said that 75 percent of the public schools have structural deficiencies and 25 percent have problems with their ventilation systems.

But how to pay for this? Herbert made the point that:

right now there are not enough people at the higher echelons of government trying to figure out the best ways to raise the enormous amounts of money that will be required, and the most responsible ways of spending that money. And there are not enough leaders explaining to the public how heavy this lift will be, and why it is so necessary, and what sacrifices will be required to get the job properly done.

Suggestions have included such institutions as a national infrastructure or regional infrastructure banks that “would allocate public funds and also leverage private capital for the most important projects.” His larger point was that top governmental leaders should be seeking all kinds of solutions that are both solid and creative, while quickly implementing the best of them.

Which brings us to this next item, one with twist and turns not completely understandable at this point, but certainly not held up by people like myself as a model of how to “get the job properly done” — to use Herbert’s words.

Diane Ravitch, an intellectual on education policy, difficult to pigeonhole politically (appointed to public office by both G.H.W. Bush and Clinton), but best described as an independent, co-writes a blog with Deborah Meier that some of our readers may be familiar with called “Bridging Differences.” This past week she highlighted a possibly disturbing development in the Race to the Top  competition program of the Department of Education, that dangles $4.3 billion to the states with a possible $1.3 billion to follow. Ravitch’s critique suggests that this competition is not run by pragmatists, but rather by ideologues who are led by the Bill Gates Foundation.

If this election had been held five years ago, the department would be insisting on small schools, but because Gates has already tried and discarded that approach, the department is promoting the new Gates remedies: charter schools, privatization, and evaluating teachers by student test scores.

Two of the top lieutenants of the Gates Foundation were placed in charge of the competition by Secretary Arne Duncan. Both have backgrounds as leaders in organisations dedicated to creating privately managed schools that operate with public money.

So, why should it be surprising that the Race to the Top reflects the priorities of the NewSchools Venture Fund (charter schools) and of the Gates Foundation (teacher evaluations by test scores)?

But here’s where the weirdness of this story enters.

Marc Dean Millot, a writer on education policy and someone who has not been overly critical of charter schools and their “education entrepreneurs” in the past, was contracted for 6 months to write on the Scholastic blog, “This Week in Education.” Millot had the temerity to pose some questions about those conflicts of interest at the Department of Education and had asked Sec. Duncan to nick this issue in the bud quickly.

I have now heard the same thing from three independent credible sources — the fix is in on the U.S. Department of Education’s competitive grants, in particular Race to the Top (RTTT) and Investing in Innovation (I3). Secretary Duncan needs to head this off now, by admitting that he and his team have potential conflicts of interests with regard to their roles in grant making, recognizing that those conflicts are widely perceived by potential grantees, and explaining how grant decisions will be insulated from interference by the department’s political appointees.

For his troubles, he was immediately sacked and the offending post removed. Fortunately, nothing is completely lost on the internet and you can read a cached version of his “Connect the Dots” piece here.

Even more chilling is Diane Ravitch’s predictions for the future, regardless of whether Secretary Duncan cleans up this apparent conflict of interest.

As hundreds and possibly thousands more charter schools open, we will see many financial and political scandals. We will see corrupt politicians and investors putting their hands into the cashbox. We will see corrupt deals where public school space is handed over to entrepreneurs who have made contributions to the politicians making the decisions. We will see many more charter operators pulling in $400,000-500,000 a year for their role, not as principals, but as “rainmakers” who build warm relationships with politicians and investors.

When someday we trace back how large segments of our public school system were privatized and how so many millions of public dollars ended up in the pockets of high-flying speculators instead of being used to reduce class size, repair buildings, and improve teacher quality, we will look to the origins of the Race to the Top and to the interlocking group of foundations, politicians, and entrepreneurs who created it.

We indeed are entering another chapter in the deepening decline in support for public education. Our looming deficit in Madison is just one example of many across the country. What we shouldn’t have to battle so vigourously is our elected and unelected “advocates.” Sadly, this also includes some of our own friends in the state capital.

Robert Godfrey

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A Starving Impulse

Sam Dillon of the New York Times has been doing some good reporting on the carrot/stick financing strategies of the Dept. of Educaction in the vortex of shrunken state budgets, stimulus money about to dry up in 2010 and Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top (RttT) funding proposal.

In a piece from January 18th, Dillon quoted Nevada’s school superintendent Keith W. Rheault, who noted that Nevada educators had initially grumbled about the RttT program but quieted their criticisms once their state’s tax revenues plummeted last year.

“When you’re starving and somebody puts food in your mouth, it’s amazing what states will do,” Mr. Rheault said.

It was obvious that any opposition was not going to derail efforts by about 40 states to compete in the first part of a two-stage competition (7 will also file for second stage applications later). This, despite the fact that many of those states had to perform last-minute legislative changes to make their proposals more in line with Dept. of Education guidelines. A big effort, for example, was made in many states to accomodate the mandate that raised the number of chartered schools or expanded the pool of students who are eligible to attend them. As well, both California and Wisconsin repealed their laws that banned the linking of student achievement data to teachers; one day, in Wisconsin’s case, after Mr. Obama’s visit to Madison.

But in their efforts to jockey for desperately needed cash, ostensibly to become a leader in education “reform,” critics have suggested that the various state’s inabilities to pay current bills should make everyone skeptical of their capacity to take on any such new initiatives. As a report noted , in the case of Illinois, if the state were to succeed in receiving RttT funding, “it might not have the ability to finance the long-term costs of any new programs once the federal money has been spent.”

“Not too long ago,” Ms. Slowik said, “everyone was encouraged to get early-childhood programs going,  but then the funding wasn’t there.”

“Then you come along and have Race to The Top, and say you’re going to give your all and put extra things on,” she added. “There’s a feeling in the education community that these are expectations some know they can’t meet.”

With Illinois, for example, already coping with $1 billion in arrears to schools, and having already used $1 billion in federal stimulus money to plug a major hole in the state’s education budget, this represents a precarious tightrope to be walking on indeed.

Some educators are skeptical that the state can meet even its current obligations for education financing, let alone support new Race to the Top initiatives.

“Not in the current financial situation — absolutely not,” said Kenneth Cull, superintendent of District 69 in Skokie and Morton Grove. “They put too much borrowing and Band-Aids on basic education. They can’t do that forever. That’s why there is really a crisis right upon us.”

Sam Dillon’s piece today explored the “funding cliff” faced by many of the nation’s schools as they begin to use up the  $100 billion that Congress included in the stimulus law last year to help schools cushion the impact of the recession.

New studies show that many states will spend all or nearly all that is left between now and the end of this school term.

With state and local tax revenues still in decline, the end of the federal money will leave big holes in education budgets from Massachusetts and Florida to California and Washington, experts said.

“States are going to face a huge problem because they’ll have to find some way to replace these billions, either with cuts to their K-12 systems or by finding alternative revenues,” said Bruce Baker, an education professor at Rutgers University.

The stimulus program “was the largest one-time infusion of federal education dollars to states and districts in the nation’s history.”

While states were warned by Sec. Duncan and others to not spend the money in ways that could lead to damaging budget holes once the federal money ended, most took to heart the other message, to stimulate the economy by saving, or creating, some 250,000 education jobs. In short, many states used the balance of their money for 2009-10 school year leaving little or no money available for 2010-11. Wisconsin was one of 20 states that said when applying for their stabilization funds that they would spend the entirety of the endowment through the 2008-10 school years. Many states ended up spending a considerable amount of their Title 1 funds to save jobs that previously would have been paid through state and local funding that were about to be dissolved due to cuts in that funding.

Yet another train wreck hurtling down the tracks for education. Who is left to turn to for answers of how the bleeding of public education will be staunched?

Robert Godfrey

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, AMPS, Arne Duncan, Budget, finance, Gimme Some Truth, School Finance, We Are Not Alone

Game On: Farley v. Howard

We’ve just received word that Tom Farley has had his nomination papers accepted and he is a candidate for school board against James Howard. For more on Mr. Farley’s travails in entering the race see AMPS coverage here and here.

Robert Godfrey

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