Category Archives: Arne Duncan

The Cost of Commitment


President Obama gave a speech at Wright Middle School in Madison today (text here) outlining his education reform initiative for the nation’s schools, called “Race to the Top,” sometimes referred to by some of his critics as the “Race off the Cliff.”

As Thomas Mertz has pointed out earlier, the amount of funds being discussed here for Wisconsin are relatively meager.

Make no mistake that this is cake, a treat, not life-sustaining bread.  The amount being discussed for Wisconsin is $80 million and this relative pittance would all be targeted for specific programs and when the $80 million is gone, Wisconsin would be stuck with more things that we can no longer afford.

So what type of reform would we be getting in this initiative, along with the modest dollars to come our way, and what would we be giving up in return? That was the crux of a letter sent yesterday by State Senator Mark Miller, chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, to Secretary Arne Duncan. He is worried like others in similar policy positions, that with all the current economic challenges out there blowing huge holes in states’ budgets across the country, that:

We do not have the fiscal resilience to sustain another long-term financial commitment based on the mere possibility that we may be awarded one-time federal dollars in the future. Once these proposed educational policy and fiscal changes are enacted into law, Wisconsin legislators and taxpayers will be responsible for the accompanying financial commitment regardless of the outcome of Wisconsin’s Race to the Top application. This promise to fund new requirements without the promise of federal dollars puts at risk other social safety net programs that rely on adequate state funding to operate.

He cited the example of costs associated with the implementation of a “Children’s Zone” in Wisconsin based upon a model developed for Harlem that could ultimately have ongoing costs to Wisconsin of more than $400 million. If you make such financial and policy commitments you must be able to have some good assurances that you can continue to pay for them. He likens the exercise in not knowing how the grant dollars will be allocated and for how long, to a gambler “trying to draw to an inside straight.”

The National Academy of Sciences recently issued a report offering recommendations on how to revise the funding guidelines and regulations of Obama/Duncan’s $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” grant program, and is well worth a read. Interestingly, the report all but neglects to mention charter schools, which are a major component of RTtT. You can read something I wrote on that subject the other day, here.

In a press release for the Academy’s study, they applauded the step of encouraging states to create systems of linking data on student achievement to teachers, since, as they noted, it is essential to conducting research about the best ways of evaluating teachers.

One way of evaluating teachers, currently the subject of intense interest and research, are value-added approaches, which typically compare a student’s scores going into a grade with his or her scores coming out of it, in order to assess how much “value” a year with a particular teacher added to the student’s educational experience.  The report expresses concern that the department’s proposed regulations place excessive emphasis on value-added approaches.  Too little research has been done on these methods’ validity to base high-stakes decisions about teachers on them.  A student’s scores may be affected by many factors other than a teacher — his or her motivation, for example, or the amount of parental support — and value-added techniques have not yet found a good way to account for these other elements.

The report also cautioned against the use of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal assessment instrument. While effective at monitoring broad trends, it will not be able to detect the type of specific effects of the targeted interventions that the RTtT hopes to fund. This infatuation with data can lead reformers, philanthropists (case in point, Bill Gates’ team up with RTtT-type initiatives) and bureaucrats to become unquestioning supporters of using test scores as indicators of real learning and teaching. As the study pointed out:

The choice of appropriate assessments for use in instructional improvement systems is critical. Because of the extensive focus on large-scale, high-stakes, summative tests, policy makers and educators sometimes mistakenly believe that such tests are appropriate to use to provide rapid feedback to guide instruction. This is not the case.

The report also urged caution when trying to apply such a blunt instrument towards making international comparisons.

We note that the difficulties that arise in comparing test results from different states apply even more strongly for comparing test results from different countries.

They conclude the report with a reiterated point, “careful evaluation of this spending should not be seen as optional; it is likely to be the only way that this substantial investment in educational innovation can have a lasting impact on the U.S. education system.”

And in another side note related to federal education financing, the Obama administration’s latest and most detailed information yet on the jobs created by the stimulus, noted that of the 640,239 jobs recipients claimed to have created or saved so far, more than half — 325,000 — were in education. Most were teachers’ jobs that states said were saved when stimulus money averted a need for layoffs.

Robert Godfrey

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Obama at JC Wright, Quick Take


I spent the early part of the day at the Books not Bombs action with about 250 others and then went home to watch President Obama’s  speech at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison on television (transcript, here).  Here are some reactions.

The inspirational message, especially the words directed at students and parents was very good.   He was utterly right about the need to seize opportunities, value and support leaning and the importance teachers and parents working to have children internalize pride in academic achievement.  One of the best teachers my children have had  moved our son from racing to get his work done as fast as possible to completing assignments in a way that he could be proud of. Thanks Mr. Waters and thanks President Obama for this message.

He was also very good about the need to make education central to our national agenda.  A little too much about the economic aspects and too little about building an engaged citizenry for my taste, but good to hear.

As many speakers at the Books not Bombs made clear, this is not happening and as I observed in an earlier post the desperation of states for Race to the Top funds is ample evidence that we are not investing in education as we should.

This raises a basic contradiction between the rhetoric in the policies:  If education is as essential to our nation’s present strength and future well being as President Obama says it is, why must states compete for one-time grants to fund only a portion of the needed investments?  What about the states that don’t get grants, are their futures less crucial, are their children less deserving of educational opportunities.?

If we can spend $4 billion a week to keep the military in distant countries we should be able to fully fund the education of every child in every state.  When we spend billions on bombs, we shouldn’t have to ask for Pennies for Kids.

There were also some contradictions within the four core ideas behind Race to the Top that the President delineated.  Again, he was absolutely correct about the need for better assessments (I have doubts about the role of national standards in this process, but that is another issue), however Race to the Top is built expanded use of the inadequate assessments we have now.  Linking teacher pay to flawed tests doesn’t make sense.  Let’s work to create real, balanced and useful assessments first and then discuss what we should do with them.  Prioritizing data collection has similar problems.  We can have the best system for collecting and analyzing data, but if the data is bad to begin with, what is the point?  The old computer programmer phrase comes to mind: Garbage In, Garbage Out.  Obama is right that our current state assessments are near garbage; I just don’t understand how he can know that and still want to expand their use as the basis for decision-making.

It also bothered me that the President seemed to paint a picture of teacher’s currently making no use of assessments or feedback in shaping their teaching.  Every teacher uses many forms of feedback everyday; they see the looks on children’s faces and change their mode of explanation or offer words of encouragement; they grade homework and know what they did well and what they need to do differently; they evaluate exams and decide how to move forward.  This is basic to teaching and happened long before there was any talk of standardized tests and longitudinal data systems and will continue to happen whether the Race to the Top agenda is enacted or not.

President Obama is also correct about the need to attract to and keep the best in our classrooms.  My opinion is that the way to do this is to respect them as professionals, listen to them and not dictate reforms from above.  Recognize that perhaps the teacher who spends hours with students every day might have a better grasp of what is needed and a deeper understanding student progress than anything that will show up in a Value Added Analysis.   It isn’t that I think the data and analysis is useless, it is that I fear that by elevating data above humans we will shut our ears to those whose voices need to be heard and we will make teaching a less attractive vocation.  I’m looking for a better balance.

In his confident words about expanding the use of data and other things, I believe that President Obama grossly overstated and in places mis-stated what the research indicates.  A good example of this is the idea of school turnarounds.  In Chicago, now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pursued an aggressive school shutdown and turnaround policy.  Through Race to the Top he is trying to nationalize it.  Well, the first research is in and it doesn’t look good.  Here is what the New York Times said:

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan presided over the closing of dozens of failing schools when he was chief executive of the Chicago public schools from 2001 until last December. In his new post, he has drawn on those experiences, putting school turnaround efforts at the center of the nation’s education reform agenda.

Now a study by researchers at the University of Chicago concludes that most students in schools that closed in the first five years of Mr. Duncan’s tenure in Chicago saw little benefit.

“Most students who transferred out of closing schools re-enrolled in schools that were academically weak,” says the report, which was done by the university’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Furthermore, the disruptions of routines in schools scheduled to be closed appeared to hurt student learning in the months after the closing was announced, the researchers found.

There is much more of interest on “turnarounds” in this week’s National Journal experts blog.

On this and many other aspects of Race to the Top,  from linking teacher pay to test scores to charter school expansion, solid research often contradicts the claims of this administration.  At best the jury is still out on the reforms they are pushing; at worst the evidence is that enacting much of their program will make things worse.

I share the President’s desire for every child to have access to full and rich educational opportunities, to move the United States toward a culture that values teaching and learning.  I worry his plan for making this happen will move us  further from realizing these ideals.

Time to go help our younger son with his homework.

Thomas J. Mertz


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President Obama at James C. Wright Middle School — What Will He Say?

Obama QI don’t have any inside information about what President Obama will say when he visits James C. Wright Middle School in Madison on Wednesday, November 4, but I do have some thoughts about what he shouldn’t say, what I would like to hear him say  and some other things concerning his visit.

All indications are that Obama and Secretary  of Education are here to push Governor Jim Doyle’s Race to the Top (RttT) lottery ticket purchase plan.  This is wrong.  If  that’s what is going on then Obama and Duncan should be speaking to the legislature and not using the students and staff at Wright as props to lobby for their misguided reform incentive package.

I’d like to see the President come to Madison and announce a redirection of national priorities centered on full funding of education.  I’d like to see this President reallocate from militarism and Wall Street bailouts to investing directly in preparing the our children to build a better future.

If you’d like this too, I hope you can join us in a “Books not Bombs” action to be held outside the school at the intersection of Fish Hatchery and Wingra during the President’s visit, 10:00 AM to 12:00 Noon.  Details here.

The whole RttT lottery is evidence of how far we are from full funding and making education the priority it should be.

The history of underfunded Federal mandates in Special Education, Title I poverty programs and programs for English Language Learners is well known.  As Robert Godfrey recently noted on this site, the stimulus package required state funding be only at 2006 levels, resulting in flat or shrinking general education funding levels made up in part by one-time federal dollars and in many places steep property tax hikes.   The state stabilization funding was accompanied by welcome  new Title I and IDEA money, but this too is a one-time deal and the regular funding levels remain woefully inadequate.

States are struggling to limit cuts to levels that won’t be disastrous and have all but lost sight of sustainable full funding.  Schools aren’t starving (yet) but they are mighty hungry.

With the Race to the Top lottery Arne Duncan and President Obama are waving a small piece of cake before these hungry schools and saying “if you jump through these hoops we may give some of you one bite each.”

Make no mistake that this is cake, a treat, not life-sustaining bread.  The amount being discussed for Wisconsin is $80 million and this relative pittance would all be targeted for specific programs and when the $80 million is gone, Wisconsin would be stuck with more things that we can no longer afford.

Yet Wisconsin and other states are running toward those hoops Duncan is holding, shouting “how high should we jump,” because they are desperate for any education funding, no matter how small, how misdirected or how ephemeral.  As I write this, the Assembly Education Committee is fast tracking the legislation to get Wisconsin through those hoops.  Only in times this desperate could the chance at so little leverage so much.

I hate to see the staff and students at Wright being used in this cynical game.  I’d much rather they heard Obama at his best, inspiring hope and aspirations; speaking of the power and joy of teaching and learning, reminding one and all that  our public schools are basic to the promises of equality of opportunity; praising our educators and students for their accomplishments; and most of all congratulating the Wright community for their good work and telling the world in some detail how these things are happening at James C. Wright Middle School, despite the odds.

Sadly, I doubt we will get much of this.  The Doyle, Duncan, Obama education agenda is tangential, irrelevant or counter to what makes Wright a school we should be proud of.

Our older son finished 8th grade at Wright last year and I participated in the School Improvement Process as a “friendly observer” so I write from experience and with Panther Pride.  Some background on Wright first.

Wright is a small school, with relatively small (if limited in their offerings) classes and  a “Social Action” focus.  86% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches, 39% are classified as English Language Learners; the racial and ethnic demographics are 1% Native American, 38% African American,  37% Hispanic, 12% Asian and  13% White.

As measured by state standardized tests (with the notation that this is a very limited measure of teaching, learning and school quality) Wright does well by most students and better than most schools for poor and minority students.  here are some graphs:


From the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, click for WINSS site.



From the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, click for WINSS site.

There are still gaps in achievement and the test scores in other subjects are not as strong, but the general picture is of a relatively successful school.

In other areas, where data is of even more limited utility, Wright is a very successful school.  There is a sense of community and an atmosphere of caring that transcends (but does not obliterate) racial, ethnic and economic differences.  The staff function as a professional, collaborative team much of the time.  In general there is pride, Panther Pride that encourages all to do their best and encourages all to aspire to do even better.  Through the social action focus, Wright seeks to bring this “we can do better” message to the wider community.  I can’t write this without once again crediting Principal Nancy Evans and the entire staff for these accomplishments and thanking them for all they do.

Reviewing the Doyle, Duncan, Obama agenda, I don’t see much that would help Wright get better and I see some things that will make it harder for Wright to maintain the quality and qualities they have achieved.

Due to the cuts in education funding in the recent state budget, Madison — like so many other districts — is looking at a very difficult budget in 2010-11.  Doyle, Duncan and Obama aren’t offering any help at all with this.  A difficult budget will likely mean that small class sizes, particularly those at Wright where they are below the norm for the district, will be targeted.

The support staff at Wright is already minimal, with psychologists, social workers, librarians and others only in the school a day or two or three a week.  That too could get worse (see here for a report of what is happening in Minnesota).

The demographics of the school highlight the importance of funding for students in poverty and English language Learners.  The state of Wisconsin provides no poverty aid beyond the limited SAGE program for the early grades, state reimbursements for English Language Learners as a percentage of costs have been falling for over a decade and the Federal money in both these areas remains small.  None of the current proposals from Doyle (or Duncan and Obama) do anything to fix this.

Much of the agenda they are pushing has to do with more data and more uses of data.  It is hard to be against better assessments, better collection of data and better coordination in the use of data; but most of this is a distraction and is linked in their agenda to misguided noti0ns of national standards and expanded use of flawed test data to make decisions about almost everything, including teacher compensation (Doyle’s legislation on the last, here).

One at a time on data issues, mostly in the “for further reading” mode.

On National standards, I recommend reading what what Deborah Meir wrote here and checking out what William A. Proefriedt has to say to understand how the standards movement is working to undermine the engaged democratic ideals at the base of Wright’s social action mission.  This recent report that the development of standards development is being shaped by profit motives of the participants is also worth a look.

On the limits of data and data analysis and their potential for abuse, the recent letter to Secretary Duncan from the Board on Testing and Assessment of the  National Research Council is a must read.

Linking teacher compensation to test scores is wrong in so many ways.  Just three things for now; it prioritizes test scores in selected subjects as the be-all-and-end-all of education, shunting aside all those things Wright that make it not just a “relatively successful school” but a great school; it has great potential to undermine collaboration and professional relationships; and it doesn’t appear to work, even by the crude measures of standardized tests.

Duncan, Obama and now Doyle like charter schools and Wright is technically a charter school.  Technically is the key word.  There is nothing about the governance of Wright that is any different than any other school in Madison.  The charter status is a historical artifact.   If they want to use Wright to make the case for charter expansion, they picked the wrong example.  Expanding charters won’t help Wright and it probably won’t help create more Wrights.

While on the topic of charters, it is also worth noting that the pedagogy and curriculum of one of Duncan’s favorite charter groups — KIPP — is the exact opposite of the engaged, questioning, challenging lessons that Wright teaches as the basis for social action.  Jim Horn has posted on this aspect of KIPP many times, see here, here and here for examples.

A few last words on Mayoral control and some other ways that the Doyle, Duncan, Obama agenda is working against the ideal of an engaged citizenry having a voice in public education, how what they are pushing and how they are pushing it undermines the social action ideas of Reverend James C. Wright and the school that bears his name.

Mayoral control and the pending legislation for State Superintendent takeovers of districts “in need of improvement” (no further requirements spelled out. just that the State Superintendent says they need improvement) if implemented will make it more difficult for activists to be involved in their schools.  School Board campaigns are local, grassroots efforts.  Mayoral and State-wide campaigns are mostly about money and advertising.  In the first, candidates meet people and listen.  In the latter they craft messages based on polling.

Once in office,  School Board members are relatively accessible; Mayors and State Superintendents are busy and difficult to reach.  In practice, the public has an opportunity to testify at most Board meetings.  Mayors tend to listen to power brokers and though I like Tony Evers (and even met with him once), I don’t believe he has held any public “listening sessions.”

These proposals won’t completely shut the public out, but they will mute the voices of the grass roots.

The voices of the grass roots have also been muted in the way the RttT legislation is being handled in Wisconsin.  Governor Doyle  issued general outlines a couple of weeks ago with few of the all-important details.  The first batch of legislation was introduced Friday 10/29 and the first hearing was scheduled for today (Monday, 11/2).  As of this morning there weren’t even Legislative Fiscal Bureau notes attached. Full floor votes in both houses may be scheduled before the end of next week (the session is scheduled to end Friday, but will likely be extended).

This isn’t enough time to analyze, much less organize and mobilize.

I’d like to hear President Obama and Governor Doyle explain to the students at Wright how this accelerated schedule serves the democratic process and why it is necessary to make it so difficult for students and others concerned with the future of education in Wisconsin to have their voices heard.

This is no more likely than the promise of new priorities and pledge of  full educational funding I wished for at the top of this post.

So in closing, I’ll express my hope for one thing that I think may actually happen:  President Obama, please be sure to spend some time with “Mother” Jacqueline Wright and share some of the stories of Mother and Reverend Wright’s activism with the world.  If, as you do this  you are reminded of why it is so important that voices from the outside be heard in the halls of power and have some second thoughts about the rest of the agenda for your visit, please heed those thoughts.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Reform Is In The Air


Mike Rose at Truthdig has noted that following the extensive and unprecedented federal reach of No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration is attempting to extend this iniative further by putting some some serious money behind a number of education initiatives that invite states and districts to compete for federal dollars. In the K-12 education world, they want, in part, to stimulate better state standards and tests, including the better measurement of teacher effectiveness, while turning around failing schools. One way they want to accomplish this is through an increase in the number of charter schools. At the same time, a third initiative wants to spark innovation and scale up the best of local academic programs.

As Mr. Rose acknowledges, this is a moment of real promise for American education, from kindergarten through college. But he also sounds a note of caution.

Reform is in the air. But within many of these reforms are the seeds of their undoing.

He pointed out that the Education Department has put a lot of stock in charter schools as “engines of innovation,” while noting, importantly, that DOE will not consider a state’s funding proposal if that state has a cap on charters.

Yet a number of research studies — the most recent from Stanford — demonstrate that charter schools, on average, are no better or worse than the regular public schools around them. To be sure, some charters are sites of fresh ideas and robust education, but so are magnet schools, and, lest we forget, so are our regular public schools, ones with strong leadership and a critical mass of good teachers. For the “reformers’” however, charter schools are the recipients of the highest accolades, the rest – not so much.

The Stanford University study shattered the myth of charter school superiority. According to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, students at only 17 percent of charter schools do better on math and reading tests than their demographic peers in regular public schools. Thirty-seven percent do worse, while 46 percent of charter school kids, almost half, perform at approximately the same level as their traditional public school counterparts.

The author of the report concludes:

This study shows that we’ve got a 2-to-1 margin of bad charters to good charters.

The results are especially significant, given that charter schools have built-in advantages – starting with parents that are engaged enough in their children’s education to put them there, in the first place. Yet the actual outcomes, in most cases, fail to live up to the hype.

President Obama and his administration are committed to charter schools. In no small part this policy is driven by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was a cheerleader for charters when he ran the Chicago school system, and has threatened to withhold federal education money from the 10 states that don’t yet have charter schools and the 26 other states that put limits on enrollment in charters. Such raw coercion, especially given the results of the Stanford study, seems strongly misguided. This comes in spite of the acknowledgement of the Stanford study on the part of Sec. Duncan, which, he suggests, merely points to the need for greater vigilance. “Charter authorizers need to do a better job of holding schools accountable.”

This administration has said that charter schools are key to educational “reform,” and provide “competition” for traditional schools. But that’s utter nonsense if the educational outcomes are no better, and in many cases worse, than in the regular public schools.

Speaking of “holding [charter] schools accountable,” one would of thought that that was a central argument for the need for charter schools in the first place, an institution free of those ill-principled and wretched teacher unions. Unionized teachers are blamed for much of the ills of education; it’s not a reasoned argument, but a matter of faith – and political prejudice. Charter schools are not private (at least not entirely, if you consider they are chartered by the state), but they are the privatizers’ foot in the door, a wedge issue to demonize unions. And that third leg of the reform movement, so to speak, measurement of teacher effectiveness, is also front and center (see the latest continued plea from the Wisconsin State Journal).

One approach being piloted in a number of education systems around the country is by the non-profit Hope Street Group, and developed by a team of teachers across the U.S., who have proposed recommendations for a smarter evaluation system, imploying more ‘objective’ measures of student achievement, ones that aim to attract and retain teachers, and put America’s schools back on top internationally.

“Policy 2.0: Using Open Innovation to Reform Teacher Evaluation Systems” suggests that in K-12 education, any teacher evaluation system should have the input of teachers and administrators and not solely come from researchers and policymakers. Their specific recommendations include the suggestion that evaluation systems should be frequently revised, that teaching advocates need to be involved in this process, and that any in-class observations for assessment must be done by teachers with sufficient experience.

Lets hope the coming “seeds of change” are not broadcasted, with great hope, onto marginal soil. There is too much at stake for education in this new century.

Robert Godfrey

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Where is the Money? SFN on “Here and Now”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Over the weekend the Wisconsin Public Television program “Here and Now” devoted most  their broadcast to education, focusing on the Governor Jim Doyle’s announcements concerning Wisconsin’s application for Race to the Top (RttT) funding.  The only guest to address the questions about the viability of this application at a time when many school districts are struggling with the cuts in state funding in the 2009-11 state budget was Green Lake Superintendent Ken Bates, representing the School Finance Network.  You can watch what Ken had to say above and see all the segments here.

The issues Bates raises are more timely than ever.  In the Governor’s initial announcement that he wanted to buy a lottery ticket for the RttT prize, he included a vague mention of “Allow[ing] districts to increase their spending if they meet specific guidelines to improve education.”

In a release today, there is no mention of funding reform or relief.

Take a look around Governor and see what is happening with school budgets in our state.

Where’s the money?

Thomas J. Mertz

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Education: Dressed & Ready for Stimulation

Photograph by David Wahl

Photograph by David Wahl

The National Access Network has highlighted the U.S. Department of Educations (USDOE) Office of the Inspector General’s report that has raised concerns over states’ use of stimulus funds.

The American Renewal and Recovery Act (ARRA) statute requires states to provide several assurances, including commitments to fund K-12 and higher education at least at FY 2006 levels and to promote reform in four areas, in order to receive these monies. The report noted however, that several states have capitalized on the flexibility of the funding requirements, to use stimulus funds to supplant rather than supplement education budgets. On AMPS we have highlighted this same issue for Wisconsin on a number of occasions, see here and here.

The department’s report contended that it has made an effort to close some funding loopholes by including funding maintenance as a consideration for awarding the so-called “Race to the Top” funds.

Equity advocates, however, have argued that this provision does not do enough, as the guidelines focus on proportional levels of funding rather than absolute figures. That is, the regulations leave the door open for states to cut the total budget from year-to-year and remain competitive applicants.

As the Access Network has noted:

The information the states have submitted raises serious questions about whether the stated purposes of the Act – stabilizing education funding, facilitating the continuation of equity and adequacy formula adjustments and promoting education reforms to boost student achievement – are being met. The goal of boosting student achievement is to be promoted through commitments from each state to promote four essential areas of reform: 1) improving teacher effectiveness; 2) making progress toward college and career-ready standards and rigorous assessments; 3) enhancing data systems to track educational practice; and 4) improving achievement in low-performing schools.

Only the first of these three goals appears to have been achieved. Virtually all of the states have stabilized their funding levels for FY 2010 at the previous years level, with the application of the federal stimulus funds. (In many instances, however, this flat funding will nevertheless result in substantial cuts in educational services since mandatory cost increases will not be covered.)

In the vastly underfunded state education systems throughout the country, stabilizing funding levels may have been

unduly emphasized at the expense of the equity and reform goals of the ARRA, as some states apparently increased their anticipated education deficits upon learning that substantial federal funding for education was in the offing, in order to limit planned cuts in other areas of the budget. Although some officials might argue that such maneuvers represented prudent budget planning, from the perspective the intent of the ARRA and the constitutional pre-eminence given to education in most state constitutions, such maneuvers clearly raise serious legal issues.

A number of advocates for educational equity have called on the DOE to require states to fund low performing schools at adequate levels. The way the current regulations are drafted, only one provision has a focus on this kind of funding. The Campaign for Educational Equity for example, has proposed a requirement that states need to provide data that shows to what extent the proportion of each state’s budget devoted to education for FY 2009 either increased, decreased or remained the same compared to FY 2008. The assumption is that those states who have maintained or increased educational funding during the last fiscal year would receive some favorable consideration in the review process for doing so. But additionally, the campaign has argued that any reform conditions that seek to assist struggling schools should include specifically the various resources identified through adequacy case law that are deemed necessary comprehensive services for students from poverty backgrounds. Further, they’ve advocated for the DOE to require states to increase their total and per pupil state and local revenues that meet the average levels of all states, or if the state is more affluent, then maintain their current funding levels. That requirement would also include states having to allocate higher levels of funding to school districts with higher levels of poverty. The DOE is meant to issue final guidelines quite shortly and grant applications will then be due and phase 1 monies will be distrubuted in early 2010.

Exactly where Wisconsin is on the supplanting vs. supplementing continuum remains to be seen. A report card from this July of each state can be found here. We’ll keep you posted.

Robert Godfrey

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Doyle Races for the Top and One Reaction (and one more, updated)

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle held events around the state today to tout the work being done on the Race to the Top application.  You can read the press release here and reports here and here (more on AMPS in the coming days).

The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools was first out of the blocks with a reaction. WAES notes that this set of proposal comes at a time when districts around the state are raising property taxes and cutting programs.

Governor Jim Doyle has introduced a plan to exempt from revenue limits school districts that meet specific criteria. The plan does recognize the need for change in the funding system, but it fails to address the crisis our schools find themselves in and doesn’t start the fundamental restructuring of our school finance laws that is so badly needed.

“While we appreciate the governor’s efforts to address the problems, the plan just doesn’t get the job done and continues the trend of shifting the responsibility for funding schools onto local property taxpayers,” said Kim Suhr, co-founder of GrassRoots of Waukesha County and a member of the board of directors of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES).

“The fact is that the way we fund schools is broken. Wholesale reform of school funding is needed now─reform that benefits both children and their communities.”

First, however, Wisconsin needs to quickly reverse the trend of declining public school aid started in the 2009-11 state budget. In total, 336 school districts lost over $175 million in general aid, a cut of over 15 percent for many communities and 10 percent or more for 181 districts.

“After 15 years of cuts to programs and services under the present funding system, that is unacceptable,” Suhr said. “The best way out of our current economic downturn is to graduate the best trained and educated young people possible from our schools. Decreasing that investment in public education is heading in the wrong direction.”

As a matter of fact, in his announcement today, the Governor had many good arguments for a longer school year, longer school days, and many other suggestions for better educating children. We need to have discussions about the educational merits of those proposals, but in many case such changes will require additional funding.

The WAES statement points to confusing fact that the programs proposed in this scramble for approximately $80 million in one-time federal funds cost money, money that districts do not have because the recent state budget included lower revenue caps, a cut in state funding of $535 million over two years, and increased the school levey credit by $352 million (the levy credit is called “state aid” by Wisconsin, but not a penny goes to schools).  The first step toward educational excellence has to be getting state support to the level it should be.

WAES also has an idea for that, a Penny for Kids dedicated sales tax.

To address the crisis by getting needed revenue back into schools as soon as possible, WAES has proposed “Pennies for Kids,” a plan to increase Wisconsin’s sales tax─one of the lowest in the country─by one-cent. Suhr said that will raise about $850 million a year that could be used to educate children and lower property taxes in every community in the state (2009 Wisconsin Act 28, 2009-11 State Budget; Summary Tables and Charts, July 22, 2009).

A discussion of the Governors proposals could be good for education in Wisconsin.  Whatever reforms are eventually enacted and whatever the result of Wisconsin’s Race to the Top application; if there aren’t provisions for adequate, equitable and sustainable investments, all the good ideas in the world won’t make a bit of difference (see what is happening with SAGE for an example).  A Penny for Kids could make  a big difference.  Pennies add up.

For an AMPS post on an earlier version of the Governor’s proposal, see here.


The School Finance Network has  issued a statement.  SFN also zeroes in on the lack of attention to needed educational investments.

Earlier today, Governor Jim Doyle proposed exempting school districts that meet specific criteria from revenue limits. While the governor’s proposal reflects Wisconsin school districts’ need for greater flexibility, it falls well short of the fundamental restructuring of our school finance laws that is so badly needed.

“While we appreciate the governor’s efforts to address the problems with school funding in this state, his proposal simply papers over holes in the current funding plan and continues the trend of shifting the responsibility for funding schools onto local property tax payers,” said Jill Gaskell, Legislative Liaison, Wisconsin PTA. “Wholesale reform of school funding is needed now – reform that benefits both children and their communities.”

….It is important to note that revenue limits were brought in as part of the state’s commitment to funding two-thirds of the costs of schools. Over the years, that support has decreased considerably, creating a situation where the cost of schools has been increasingly shouldered by local taxpayers.

“The state continues to pass the school funding buck to local property tax payers,” said Gaskell. “The governor’s plan simply speeds that process up.”

Allowing for greater property tax increases is not only bad in theory, in practice very few districts will be able to take advantage of the offer. With the recent shift in education investments from state aid to local property taxes, more and more districts are already unable to reach their revenue limits. This situation has become so pronounced that Assembly Bill 461 has been introduced to make sure that districts that go under the limit are not punished with lower limits in future years.

SFN closes by pointing to the advantages of their proposals

Instead of piecemeal reform and the continued burdening of taxpayers, a statewide coalition of educational and community-oriented organizations, known as the School Finance Network (SFN), is suggesting that structural reform of school financing should be made now.

The School Finance Network has identified flaws in the current system and its plan bolsters efforts to comply with the Vincent v. Voight court ruling, which requires the state to take into account districts with disproportionate numbers of disabled students, economically disadvantaged students, and students with limited English language skills.

SFN has determined that overall annual increases in allowable funding fail to keep pace with real world costs over which school districts have little to no control, such as utilities and transportation. By crafting proposals to fix these flaws, the SFN proposal will allow school districts around the state to maintain coursework in art, music, foreign language, business, and vocational training, all of which are now being cut, providing children with high quality education for which this state has a proud tradition.

More in the coming days and weeks.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Arne Duncan, Best Practices, Budget, education, finance, Local News, Pennies for Kids, School Finance, Uncategorized

Education Tweak #13 — Bill Gates Pulls the Strings

Click on image for pdf.

Click on image for pdf.

Previous EdTweaks can be found at

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Arne Duncan, education, Gimme Some Truth, National News, School Finance

Don’t “Get Lost in the Numbers”

41-1I was cleaning  out old links and came across this wonderful editorial from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram.  It really really does a great job of explaining what is wrong with the “data driven” numbers obsessed educational policy decision-making and providing some perspective.  Here is the whole thing:

Editorial: As school year starts, don’t get numbed by numbers

When observing our educational system through the lens of the media, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers.

We’re not talking about the numbers kids will find in multiplication tables and quadratic equations when they return to classrooms in the Chippewa Valley this week; we mean the kind of numbers that make headlines.

There are the good numbers, such as standardized test scores, which typically show local schools meeting and exceeding state and national averages.

There are bad numbers as well – unfortunately, too many of them: the millions that are perpetually being cut from school budgets because of state aid shortfalls, not to mention the compensation numbers of a certain Eau Claire school district administrator most in the community wish would just go away.

On top of this, there are confusing, ambiguous numbers – those used to calculate allowable increases in teachers’ salary and benefits packages, for instance, or those mysterious ones known as “mill rates” – the kind that drive endless political debates and generate hard feelings among educators, taxpayers and elected officials.

All of these numbers are important, which is why you’ll find them in the pages of this newspaper. However, focusing on the numbers alone can distract our attention from other parts of the educational equation. To put it another way, if we focus only on the ‘rithmatic, we forget about the readin’ and ‘ritin’.

Measuring, tabulating and trying to improve test scores is important to education, but that’s far from the mind of a kindergartner who can’t wait to use his brand new box of crayons on the first day of school.

School budgets and the decisions that shape them are vital too, but so is the pride of an elementary student who has finished her first chapter book, the joy of a middle-schooler tackling a novel, or the excitement of a high school student unfolding Shakespearean sonnets.

Likewise, while it’s necessary to ensure our educators are paid in a way that’s fair to them and the taxpayers, it’s also necessary to acknowledge and support teachers as they inspire young people to learn, work hard and express themselves.

And though community residents deserve honest school administrators and elected school board members, we shouldn’t let the numbers games some people have played undercut our support for the goal of our educational system: producing good citizens capable of improving their own and others’ lives.

The 2009 school year is a brand-new spiral-bound notebook. May the numbers and letters that fill it in the coming months tell a positive story.

– Tom Giffey, editorial page editor

Thomas J. Mertz

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Education Tweak #12 – Arne Duncan: “You Lie” (+ Bob Dylan Bonus)

Click on image for pdf.

Click on image for pdf.

Previous EDTweaks can be found at

And thanks to my brother for making the connection between the Joe Wilson “You lie” outburst and this classic Bob Dylan performance.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Accountability, Arne Duncan, Best Practices, Gimme Some Truth, National News, nclb, No Child Left Behind