Category Archives: “education finance”

MMSD Administrative Analysis of Madison Prep and a Rumor

The Staple Singers – “This May Be The Last Time” (click to listen or download)

The required Administrative Analysis of the Madison Preparatory Academy charter school proposal  by the Madison Metropolitan School District staff has been posted, and it doesn’t bode well for approval.  The analysis identifies causes for concern and unanswered questions in many areas, including finances, staffing, governance, educational plans, single-sex segregation and many more.   There are some very strong things in the Analysis and to be honest I was slightly and pleasantly surprised by this strength.   [Update: Appendices have also been posted here   —  Appendix A – 9/20/11 WI Department of Public Instruction memo ; Appendix B – Personnel Costs; Appendix C – Summary Table Costs for Madison Prep Proposal Becoming an Instrumentality; Appendix D – Madison Prep Final Budget Proposal Instrumentality Analysis and Cost.] A long  excerpt and initial observations below, but first the rumor.

The (well-sourced) word I am hearing is that the Urban League of Greater Madison’s response to the matters raised or detailed in the analysis will be to seek a non-instrumentality, non union charter.  From another source comes the word that ULGM will announce a decision on Wednesday.  This change  may address some of the issues, but it raises others that will need attention.  The Analysis is based on the instrumentality proposal, so a new analysis may be required if the rumor is true

Many of the questions I am hearing assume the rumor is true and concern “what next?”.  As I see it there are three two possibilities.  The first is that the Board votes on November 28 as planned.    This may be preceded by altered submissions by The Urban League of Greater Madison on instrumentality status or other things and as noted above the need for aq new analysis may render this timeline impossible.  If the rumor is true and there is a change on instrumentality, I would not expect the Board to vote on November 28 unless A)Non-instrumentality is a deal killer (which it might be); or B) Other portions of the proposal and analysis unrelated to instrumentality status lead to a majority “no” vote.    So the second possibility, that the timeline gets extended, that there is a revised proposal and likely a new Administrative Analysis seems most likely to me.  More staff, Board and community time to be spent on something that even if approved seems to promise few benefits to those who are struggling most.

Now to the excerpt from the conclusion  (this is long):

CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Conclusion and Recommendations

Over the past year, a very important conversation has taken place within our community about the achievement gaps we face as a District. While the Madison Metropolitan School District has been committed to closing its achievement gaps for many years and is a founding member of the Minority Student Achievement Network, the Urban League of Greater Madison should be credited for raising this dialogue to a new level within our community.

Simply put, the achievement gaps for low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners must be eliminated, and if any community is able to do so, this community can. This summary section of the administrative analysis for the Madison Preparatory Academies for Young Men and Young Women begins with a thank you to the Urban League for its persistent advocacy for our young people and for elevating the dialogue within our community. While this conversation has not been the without strain, it needed to take place, and it needs to continue.

Throughout the District’s discussions with the Urban League, three prominent issues have emerged:

  • the status of Madison Prep’s proposal as an instrumentality or non-instrumentality of the
  • District;
  • the costs of the proposed program; and
  • issues related to the single gender aspects of the Madison Prep proposal.

Instrumentality/Non-Instrumentality

The proposal submitted to the District by Madison Prep is an instrumentality proposal. By statute, as an instrumentality, all personnel must be employed by the District. As a result, involved employees become members of various collective bargaining units, subject to collective bargaining agreements.

Costs

Madison Prep submitted their budget plan to the District on October 30, 2011. Throughout the process of finalizing the plan, it has been apparent to the administration that the submitted budget did not take into account the fact that all personnel would be employees of the District, and the costs associated with this employment as required by Madison Prep’s proposal as an instrumentality. As a result, staffing costs have been recalculated with the result being a higher per pupil cost, a greater gap between the dollar amount the District could transfer from its other schools, without impacting programs, and the full costs to implement the program as an instrumentality. The current gap amount over a five year period of time within the administrative analysis is over $13 million on a break even analysis.

Gender

The administrative analysis has pointed out that there are concerns for the District should Madison Prep’s schools be implemented using a gender segregated model.

Recommendations

The achievement gaps we face must be eliminated. As we work with more urgency to identify and implement multiple strategies, this District has an interest in any proposal that provides additional, effective strategies to eliminate this unacceptable gap. Strategies like the International Baccalaureate Program, longer school days and a longer school year, mentoring support and the proposed culture of the school, as included in Madison Prep’s proposal, are all strategies we are interested in. However, we are also charged with considering the impact on all of our programs as we analyze the specifics of this proposal.

Analysis in this report is based on Madison Prep’s proposal as submitted. The purpose of this report is to provide analysis on that proposal without making programmatic changes, but as noted above, costs have been calculated to accurately reflect requirements as an instrumentality.

Madison Prep’s plan as submitted has an outstanding gap of over $13 million over the next 5 years. To fill that gap would require the District to make an investment of $15,000 – $17,000 per pupil per year. I cannot recommend that the District fund this proposal to that level. I can, however, recommend that MMSD fund Madison Prep to an amount equal to the funding we receive for every child under state revenue limits. That is a per pupil per year investment of $10,589 (2012-13 school year) – $11,389 (projected for 2016-17 school year).

This reflects an additional investment of over $5 million over the break even analysis. However, it still leaves a gap of approximately $8 million for Madison Prep’s current proposal. We are willing to work with Madison Prep to identify cost savings. As an instrumentality, we may be able to offer additional efficiencies, and are willing to continue that discussion if the Board so advises.

In addition to financial considerations, the Board must also consider the legal risks associated with Madison Prep’s single-gender proposal and the possibility of litigation.

If the Board votes to approve Madison Prep’s proposal, the following conditions should also be met.

  1. The recommendations found throughout the administrative analysis should be reviewed and discussed in development of a contract.
  2. All personnel will be employed by the District in collaboration with Madison Prep.
  3. All provisions related to collective bargaining agreements with MTI and AFSCME are followed.
  4. The budget as outlined by the District in addition, the management fee and the amount budgeted or an annual surplus should be eliminated with the surplus replaced with the amount each of the District’s middle schools is allowed to carry over, year to year ($20,000 per middle school and $40,000 per high school).
  5. The admissions process should follow the District’s enrollment timeline and acceptance into the program should be based on the lottery only. This does not prevent Madison Prep from utilizing an interview to get to know the selected students and the interview should occur after students are selected through the lottery.
  6. An ongoing bridging committee should be established to address issues that will occur when the schools are implemented.
  7. Relative to the proposal to have all board policies waived with the exception of those related to health and safety, we recommend conducting a detailed review of all Board policies to assess which should be waived and which should not.

We know more needs to be done as a District and a community to eliminate our achievement gaps, but we are also confident in our community’s ability to do so. If the Board so advises, we are willing to continue the discussions with Madison Prep and work to identify ways that costs of this proposal can be lowered, or to identify on our part, other things that we need to be doing as a school District and community to eliminate achievement gaps. These discussions need to continue on behalf of the children of this community.

Very quick observations (I want to get this up, in such a hurry I’m not even going to offer a song with this post, maybe I’ll add one later — did that, added a song).

First, a very good case can be made that Madison Prep has had their bite at the apple and failed to present a reasonable proposal in a reasonable time frame.  There is simply too much that is unresolved, uncertain, unanswered.  As I noted before, the simple requirements for a “detailed proposal” have not been met and as item #7 indicates, they still have not been met.  Despite the wishes of some, the burden is on the proposer to make their case for their plan and ULGM has not done that.

Second, the Administration floats the idea of using some of the unused levy authority to meet part of the budget gap for Madison Prep.  As one who has advocated tirelessly to get MMSD to use this authority in ways that all agree will help many students in our district schools (and has been attacked for this), I find it disturbing that the Administration — which has been recommending under-levies — now changes direction in order to fund a charter school that by their own analysis is of questionable merit.

Now in praise of the Administration for pages (4-7 and elsewhere), countering the falsehoods that MMSD cares little and does even less to address  the achievement of poor and minority students.  For a similar list, see this recent Wisconsin State Journal editorial

I’m going to close by saying that I was also very, very glad to see this from the Administration:

Simply put, the achievement gaps for low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners must be eliminated, and if any community is able to do so, this community can. (emphasis added).

And add that it was exactly that sentiment that has informed my advocacy and the advocacy of many others on budget and other matters.  Madison is place where we can achieve equitable educational opportunities, quality education, and real learning for all our students in our district schools.  We need to do this, we can do it.

What we don’t need is a charter school that embodies most of the worst policies and practices being pushed by those whose interests lay in convincing people that public education is a failure, that even in Madison, we can’t.

We can.

Thomas J. Mertz

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“It’s time to spread the truth about impact of budget on Wisconsin’s public schools”

Click the graphic for more information on WAES.

The Jam – “Time for Truth” (click to listen or download)

I haven’t posted any Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools  advocacy material this way lately, so here goes.  Short version:  The “tools” aren’t working, our students aren’t getting the opportunities to learn they need and deserve, and the only way this will change is if we don’t give up, we keep agitating.

Dear education advocate:

We need your help now.  We’ve identified you as not only people who care about kids, schools and their communities, but also who have the knowledge and skills to work on their behalf. We need your help in reaching out to the rest of the state—the media, community organizations and your neighbors—in pointing out how destructive recent changes have been to our children’s opportunities to learn.

This afternoon, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators released data that show, for the first time, the devastating impact of the most recently passed state budget.
While we all knew intuitively that a $1.6 billion cut in education would have an impact, the data is even worse than we could have expected and is a clear signal that our state is moving in the wrong direction as it relates to our schools.

The report is attached along with the release that was distributed from WAES. Here are the messages that we want to convey:

  • The state budget cut education by historic proportions. The state budget cut aid and revenue limit authority to Wisconsin schools by $1.6 billion in the last budget.  This is the largest cut to Wisconsin education ever and is one of the biggest cuts made by any state in the history of the country .
  • These cuts are having a devastating impact on our schools.  The data is in, and it shows that the cuts to Wisconsin schools, as a result of the state budget, are devastating and much worse than we could have expected.
  • Class sizes have skyrocketed. What happens when you cut teaching positions? Obviously, class sizes get larger. In schools large and small across the state, the average size of classes, especially at the elementary school level, have increased dramatically.
  • Course offerings have decreased.  The new data show that the numbers of programs and services for students in our public schools have declined significantly.  What’s worse, some classes, including programs for gifted students and the kinds of classes that are needed for admittance into highly selective colleges and universities, are gone. For those students who want to go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison or another highly selective school, the challenge has become even greater.
  • Schools face even greater financial challenges next year.While the news is terrible for schools this year, the data show that half of Wisconsin schools are using one-time federal dollars to balance this year’s budget shortfall, money that will not be available next year.  Moreover, two out of three districts say that next year’s cuts will be even bigger than this year’s.
  • >We’re heading in the wrong direction. The data show that we are clearly moving in the wrong direction when it comes to our schools.  At a time when the knowledge and skills of our graduates are more important than ever before—not only for them but for our entire state—why are we making such devastating cuts to our schools?

Here is what you can do now: While we are working to connect with reporters who are covering the story from a state-level perspective, we need your help in reaching reporters, bloggers, and media outlets in your area.  Here are some specific things you can do right now —

  • >Find out what’s happening at home: The data from DPI tells the story at the state level, and it is devastating to children. If you can work with your local school district to determine the local impact, it will be even more powerful.
  • Connect with local reporter: We need to make sure this report is covered in your local newspaper.  Toward that end, if you know a reporter at your local paper who would write about this issue, please contact them and urge them to do so.
  • Write a letter to the editor: We also encourage you to write a letter-to-the-editor of your local newspaper for publishing.  If you need them, e-mail addresses of many Wisconsin newspapers are attached to this message.
  • Contact local talk radio hosts and ask to go on their shows: We need to get our voices heard on this issue. Contact the hosts of local radio shows and ask them if you can go on their show to talk about the report.
  • Connect with others who will amplify our voices: Think about others in your area who are friendly to our cause and can help carry these messages.  Do you know someone who writes a popular local blog? Are you close with your local PTA/PTO president? Use your imagination and your connections to tell others about this report, and ask them to spread our messages.

Whatever you do, please do something and make sure to let us know your plans. Thanks.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Cap Times, Folkbum, and a whole lot of other places have more.

To help recall Scott Walker, check in with United Wisconsin.

Thomas J. Mertz

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What Madison Prep Doesn’t Want You to See

Bill Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine” (click to listen or download)

Earlier this week The Urban League of Greater Madison (ULGM) provided the Madison Metropolitan School District  with new, draft documents, a “Business Plan” and another Budget.  I learned of these documents this morning and was told at that time they would be posted on the district web site by Noon.  When at the request of ULGM that didn’t happen,  I called to ask for a copy.  After some time elapsed and calls from me and others, I was told copies could be obtained only by going to the Doyle Building in person.  I’m remedying that by posting them here (click the link above).

I’ve only had a chance to skim one of them, but there doesn’t appear to be too much new (although some of this has been on the Madison Preparatory Academy website and not in an official document before).  I’ll be digging in later.  For now just three observations.

  1. A major concern with charter schools is turning over children and money to a private group that lacks transparency and openness.  I realize these are draft documents, but the fact that ULGM thought they were ready to give the district, but wanted to make it hard for the public to review them does not demonstrate a commitment to openness or transparency.  It demonstrates that there is reason to be concerned.
  2. As I’ve said before, what we have seen thus far is a marketing plan, not a plan to open a school.  This gets a very little bit closer to a plan to open a school, but it is clear that more time and energy has been spent selling than planning.
  3. The clock is still ticking and the criteria for a “detailed proposal” have still not been met.  November 28 is the projected vote, which means the Administrative Analysis needs be be done by November 13.  They need all the information possible before completing that analysis and the sooner the better.

More later.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Some Truth About Urban Prep and Why It Matters

The Undisputed Truth – ” Smiling Faces” (click to listen or download)

Introduction

To bolster their case and push their agendas, advocates for market-based education reform and   market-based policies in general tout “miracle schools” that have supposedly produced amazing results .  Urban Prep in Chicago is often exhibit A.

As Diane Ravitch wrote of Urban Prep and other ed deform favorites ” the only miracle at these schools was a triumph of public relations.”

Locally, backers of the Madison Preparatory Academy have incorporated much of the Urban Prep model in their plan and have repeatedly cited the “success” of that  school as evidence of the soundness of their proposal.   Just this weekend Derrell Connor was quoted as saying in relation to Madison Prep “We are using Urban Prep (in Chicago) as an example, which for the last four years has a 100 percent graduation rate and all those kids have gone on to college.”  As I pointed out in a back-and-forth in the comments on that interview, the actual Urban Prep graduation rate is far below 100% (62.6% is the correct figure, my mistakes in the comments, also there have only been two graduating classes, not four) .

While this is better than the figures for African American Males in Chicago and Madison, I tend to discount graduation rates as a metric for autonomous and semi-autonomous schools where what constitutes passing isn’t closely monitored and all involved have a vested interest in higher numbers.  Similar interests are present with the  college admissions figures that are at the center of Urban Prep’s marketing campaign.   Often a counterfactual is employed: “better at Urban Prep or college than in prison,” but there is no way to establish that without Urban Prep these particular students would be headed toward prison and given the family/self selection, many reasons to believe that they would not.  All of this distracts from a a consideration of the desirability of a model that sends under-prepared students to college where at best they receive remediation paid for by scarce family or scholarship funds or student loans.  Also lost is the fact that the vast majority of post-secondary institutions have minimal admissions requirements and that almost all motivated high school graduates (and even GED takers) can gain admission.

That back-and-forth directly prompted this post (it was one of many that have been simmering and was moved to the front burner).  As the title indicates, I want to dig  beyond the hype and look at what has and has not been achieved at Urban Prep.  I also want to explore a bit how the hype has distorted and damaged discussions and deliberations about education and education policy.

An Aside

This most definitely is not a rejoinder to Mr. Connor, but since I did mention him, I will say up front that in both the interview and the comments, I sensed from his words —  more than I have from many others  —  a willingness to acknowledge the complexity of the issues and the limitations of any one educational program.   This is important, because  —  as addressed below  —  I see much of the negative impact of the “miracle school” myth as being due to denial of complexity and limitations.

Some Truth About Urban Prep (Numbers and Charts)

First the caveats.  I don’t now and never will believe that test score data gives anything like a true or full picture of a school (or district or state).  Standardized tests are at best a limited snapshot, designed to sort students, not measure what they know; and so much else of what goes on in schools  —  both good and bad  — and contributes to or detracts from  personal development is not and cannot be quantified with any degree of confidence.   So “some truth,” from some test score data, not the whole truth.  One more caveat is that all numbers are from the Englewood Campus (the others are too new to have posted data).

Gary Rubenstein and others have done the basic work of delineating the abysmal test scores at Urban Prep.   You can view the interactive school Report Card here.  There really is no way to spin 17% of the students meeting state standards as a “success,” (nor  is there any way to look at the 29% meeting standards in the Chicago Public Schools and not demand change of one sort or another).  The idea that Urban Prep is a success to be emulated is absurd.  Further examination of the record only reinforces this conclusion.

What I  want to do here is look a deeper at the differences in achievement (gaps) between “easier to educate” and “harder to educate students  at Urban Prep, specifically around poverty.  One more caveat: looking at gaps based on broad categories like poverty, special education and race also distorts the realities of schools and students, all poverty is not the same (for a fine macro take on this see this from Bruce Baker), special education students have a wide variety of abilities and the of salience race is not simple or constant.

Still, much of the case being made in favor of Urban Prep and Madison Prep is based on standardized test achievement gaps, so looking at the gaps that exist at Urban Prep is reasonable.

Poverty  matters and the gaps based on poverty —  as measured by Free or Reduced Lunch status  — at the almost entirely African American Urban Prep are eye-opening and further  puncture the myth that this school has the answers.

The first chart shows composite percentage meeting (none exceeded) state standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), all PSAE data from here.

As bad as the scores are for the school as a whole, they are much, much worse for the students in poverty. In the most recent year the gap is 19.7% and only 11.7% of students in poverty meet the standards.

Similar,gaps on the ACT (raw data here).

This shows the percentage of students who achieved a composite score of 20 or greater, a measure of “college readiness,” but not the official ACT version (both measures are problematic for a variety of reasons).  The poverty gap was 18.2 in 2011, with only 5.3% of students in poverty scoring a composite of 20 or greater.

One more from the ACT, this one shows composite means.

The point differences aren’t that great, but the gap is there and neither the 17.7 (for non FRL) nor the 15.5 (for FRL) inspires confidence.   When you learn that Urban Prep has partnered with a for profit ACT Prep company, these scores look even worse.

Whatever might be working at Urban Prep (by these measures), is working much better for non Free/Reduced Lunch students than it is for students in poverty.   It should also be noted that on most of these measures and for most years, with one exception, the gaps have grown.  Poverty matters.

(Some of) Why This Matters

The Big, Big Picture: Structural Inequality

The Big, Big Picture is about structural change in our society and how the myths of “miracle schools” and equality of opportunity via education work against those changes.  The”schools and schools alone can overcome inequality, ” teacher and teacher union bashing corporate reform crowd associated with the Education Equality  Projectsignatories include  Kaleem Caire, Newt Gingrich,  Michelle Rhee,  Whitney Tilson (of DFER),  Dr. Beverly L. Hall (the disgraced former Atlanta Superintendent), Eric Hanushek (of the Hoover Institute)…you get the idea  — make extensive use of the supposed miracle schools to advance their agendas.  They don’t want the myths exposed, they don’t want structural inequality examined.

I’ve spent a good deal of my life studying and working for equality of educational opportunity and strongly believe that public education is the best tool we have for combating inequality, but “social”  equality (“social” as in TH Marshall’s conception of “Social Citizenship” see Linda Gordon and Nancy Fraser for more) and even real equality of educational opportunity requires something much Broader and Bolder than school reform can bring (click the link, I’m a signatory there).

Yet it is incontrovertible  that no school or teacher can fully erase the educational advantages that the children of the educated and the wealthy have over children without books in their homes or even homes at all.  Even at a school like Urban prep, where likely no students are wealthy but many are poor, the differences are pronounced.

In more subtle ways  the myths of meritocracy and educational opportunity have worked against the fuller enactment of social provisions found in most Western nations and continue to obscure and distract from confronting the structures that reproduce inequality.

I have another post  germinating that will cover some of this, so I’m going to keep working to expand Opportunities to Learn  and set this analysis aside for now (related thoughts from Diane Ravitch here).

The Big Picture: Educational Policy

In terms of educational decision-making, a big problem with these myths is that they are false and false premises poison the process.

Because the myths are as attractive as they are false, getting past this is difficult.  People want to believe in miracles.  Add to that they are being spread via a very, very  well-funded marketing and lobbying campaigns and the problem is compounded.   A credulous media doesn’t help either; miracles make great stories ( see ” “Misinformed charter punditry doesn’t help anyone (especially charters!)” by Bruce Baker for a somewhat different take on this).

The reality of expanding opportunities and extending attainment is not as simple or as marketable.  Lists of “proven” policies  — like adequate funding, smaller classes, differentiated resource allocations (poverty aids); differentiated instruction; Quality  early childhood education; experienced; well prepared and compensated staff (not just teachers, but social workers, EAs. librarians, psychologists, counselors,  all in adequate numbers to assure that students get the attention they need);  high expectations and challenging academic work  for all students, quality and culturally relevant instructional materials, school and classroom diversity,  professional learning communities where educators have a respected voice in policy and practices, flexible pedagogy, well designed and frequent interventions for those falling behind, parental and community involvement  —  don’t have the same appeal.

When you add to these an acknowledged  need to attempt to address factors beyond the control of the schools, like mobility, developmental environment, peer cultures, health and medical issues (including but not limited to those like lead poisoning and fetal alcohol syndrome that directly effect learning and disproportionately impact minorities and those in poverty), food insecurity, housing insecurity,…..you’ve lost most of your audience.

If anyone is still listening or reading, you will almost certainly lose them if  you honestly end by saying  “these are some of the things we should be doing and they will help many,  but even with these we won’t achieve equality and maybe not even quality education for all.”   Complex, multifaceted, expensive and uncertain is a hard sell.

Closer to Home

As long as  the myths and narratives of advocates like those pushing Madison Prep remain largely unexamined, the false but attractive stories of simplistic miracles will have an advantage.  Even the  “if not this, what’s the alternative” response to questions and evidence leaves the public relations deck  stacked in their favor.  They have an easily marketed “tight package” but reality isn’t so tight and neither are  good education policy and practice.

Just for the record,  my answer to “if not this what” would begin with the above lists, include a call to implement the recommendations of the Equity Task Force and extend to seeking better understandings of how multiple factors such as mobility, race, poverty, disabilities, language…interact among students in MMSD, and how to and address these (one of my big complaints with the Madison Prep sales pitch is the simplistic framing of achievement as an exclusively  racial issue,  and the even more simplistic conflation of the experiences of African Americans and Latinos) .  I’d also recommend “Why Does the Gap Persist?” by Paul E. Barton as a good starting point on the state of research-based knowledge (along with the Better Bolder materials linked above and …..and….).  Not very tight or marketable, but the kind of things I think we should be talking about instead spreading or busting the myths of Urban Prep and the like.

Many people have  said that it is good that Madison Prep has forced our community to have a conversation about the education of students who are failing/being failed.  I wish we were having that conversation  but we aren’t.  There has been more heat than light and more myth than fact.

Much about the way Madison Prep has been presented has worked against the kind of deliberation I think our students and community would benefit from.  Perhaps the most basic part of this is  the fact that months into the marketing campaign and weeks before the vote on the proposal, the educational program  for Madison Prep is  still very much an outline (the basic requirements under for a “detailed” proposal” under MMSD policy have yet to be satisfied)  and it certainly has not been given much scrutiny.

The educational program should be central to the conversation.  Many communities spend months or years considering in great detail the pros and cons of single aspects of the Madison Prep plan, such as extended time, International Baccalaureate (perhaps relevant to this is the fact that despite claiming an Advanced Placement program Urban Prep students have not taken a single AP exam),  single-sex education (another Urban prep practice), “no excuses” policies (Urban Prep again), extended school day (yep, Urban Prep and like so much of this not supported by research)….With the clock ticking, we’ve spent almost no time on any of these, singly or in combination (as I’ve said repeatedly, the combination matters because the whole could be less –or more — than the sum of the parts).

The clock is ticking, but it isn’t too late.  I have faith that the Board of Education will at least attempt to deliberate based on facts and not myths, as well as some hope that a significant portion of the community, including some supporters of Madison Prep, will welcome and engage in this process.  Some hope.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Madison Prep – 1,2,3 Yellow Light (updated)

The Talking Heads, “1,2,3 Red Light” (live, 1977 — click to listen or download).

[Update — I forgot a huge issue:  Waivers ULGM had previously asked for a blanket waiver of all MMSD policies and some state laws.    There has been no further information on this.]

Big news over the weekend in the Madison Preparatory Academy saga.  There has been significant and positive movement on four issues by the Urban League of Greater Madison (ULGM).  First, they have changed their request from non-instrumentality to instrumentality, increasing control by and accountability to the district.  Second, they have agreed to be staffed by teachers and other educators  represented by Madison Teachers Incorporated (MTI) and follow the existing contract between MTI and the Madison Metropolitan School District (the memo on these two items and more  is here).  ULGM has also morphed their vision from a district-wide charter to a geographic/attendance area charter.  Last, their current budget projections no longer require outrageous transfers of funds from other district schools.   Many issues and questions remain but these move the proposal from an obvious red light to the “proceed with caution” yellow.  It is far from being a green light.

Before identifying some of the remaining questions and issues, I think it is important to point out that this movement on the part on the Urban League came because people raised issues and asked questions.   Throughout the controversies there has been a tendency to present Madison Prep as initially proposed as “THE PLAN” and dismiss any questioning of that proposal as evidence that the questioners don’t care about the academic achievement of minorities and children of poverty.  This has been absurd and offensive.  Remember this started at $28,000 per/pupil.  Well, ULGM has moved this far because people didn’t treat their proposal as if it had been brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses;  if the proposal is eventually approved,  MMSD and likely Madison Prep will be better because these changes have been made.  As this process enters the next phases, I hope everyone keeps that in mind.

There is a Public Hearing on “The Proposal” tonight, October 3,2011 @ 6:00 PM at he Doyle Building (show early, there will be a crowd).  “The Proposal” is in quotation marks because there is much information that is required by Board Policy in a detailed proposal that is either missing or incomplete.  What we have officially — many things have been discussed in the press or on the Madison Prep site in more (but still not satisfactory) detail than appears in the official record —   is all (or nearly all) posted on this page from the district.

In the next 6-8 weeks the Board will vote on the proposal.  According to their policies, among the things they will be considerings are:

…an analysis of how a decision to establish or not establish the proposed charter school will impact families to be served and the overall programs and operation of the District.

and

…at a minimum, consider the information included in the detailed proposal, the information provided by the Superintendent, whether or not the requirements of Board Policy have been met, the level of employee and parental support for the establishment of the charter school, and the fiscal impact of the establishment of the charter school on the District.

What follows is a very initial and very lightly annotated list of what I see as things that should be part of this process.  Because new budget information was only released Friday evening and much other information is lacking, I want to emphasize that this is initial.  They are grouped loosely by topic and in no particular order (I will say I think the last is most important) ; some are things I think are of real concern, others are things that I just think need answers.

Budget Related:

There is much analysis yet to be done on the educational soundness of the choices made in the budget and more, but for now four issues jump out at me.

  1. Fund-raising projections at or above $500,000 per year.  This is a huge figure.
  2. Cost to families of about $770 per student, per year (uniforms, activity fee and field trip fee).  I misread the budget here and it looks like that included lunch and breakfast.  I believe the correct figure is about $270.
  3. No accounting for attrition:  Both ‘No Excuses” and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs have high attrition rates and all schools have some attrition.
  4. In years 6 or 7  IB exam fees kick in .  These could total in the tens of thousands annually.  We only have years 1-5 in the budget.

MTI Contract:

  1. Supervision of MTI members by non-MMSD employees may violate the existing contract. [Update:  And state statutes, which read: ” If the school board determines that the charter school is an instrumentality of the school district, the school board shall employ all personnel for the charter school.”]
  2. “Performance” based bonuses may violate the existing contract.
  3. What happens when the current contract expires.  If Act 10 is still in place, the protections currently available cannot be extended.  Despite the recent movement, the Madison Prep team  has a record being anti-union.

Location and Attendance Area:

The latest information as reported in the Cap Times (not anything official) is:

Caire says the school is looking at facilities to rent on the near west side, with most students likely to come from the current Toki, Cherokee, Jefferson and Wright middle school attendance areas.

First Wright does not have an attendance area of its own but encompasses the whole West area.  I understand this as saying the school will draw from West and Memorial areas, but this needs clarification.    Once clarified, the likely impact on all schools involved must be considered, as well as how this will shape the demographics of all the schools involved, including Madison Prep (remember, charter schools cannot discriminate in admissions).

Single Sex Education:

ULGM has said they intend to  satisfy the legal concerns of DPI at the time they finalize their contact with MMSD (if it gets this far).  This may be OK for DPI and planning grant funding, but seems to be mighty late in the game for MMSD.  I really think that this needs to be cleared up before the Board votes.

There is also the unexamined issue of how this fits with MMSD’s commitment to non-discrimination in relation to transgender students (something that is written into their Charter School Policy).  For those who don’t think this is important, I suggest you read the public testimony from the 2004 meeting that prompted MMSD to become a leader on this issue.

Who Will Attend:

This is related to the Location and Attendance Area matters, but extends beyond.   Given the laws and policies requiring open charter school admissions, I still don’t understand how or why this can work to target those students who are failing/being failed.

The Educational Program:

This is and should always be the crux of the matter.  If the program being proposed can reasonably be said to have a highly likelihood of significantly improving the educational attainment of a significant percentage of those who attend, then (almost) everything else becomes secondary (it doesn’t go away, but it recedes and note that all of the “high likelihoods” and “significantlys” are  – to a great degree  —  subjective).

I wrote before:

The Madison Prep educational plan itself is an incoherent and contradictory mélange of trendy and unproven elements.  Some of what is being proposed is promising (intensive tutoring, perhaps longer school days and years), some of it educationally empty (uniforms), and some of it likely damaging to creativity and authentic learning (the militaristic discipline of the “No Excuses” models).  None of the elements in-and-of themselves have been shown to make a significant impact on academic achievement and because of the contradictions there is a good chance that the whole will be less than the sum of the parts.

There has been nothing from Madison Prep since I wrote that to change my impression.    I’ll be researching and writing more on this in the coming weeks and hope that more information from Madison Prep on their educational plans is forthcoming.

I want to point out that the incoherence and contradictions of what we have seen so far block the supposed path to replicating any possible successes in district schools   If this works, it won’t be at all clear what aspects made it work.

Lately I’ve been digging into IB materials and looking for places where it has been tried with high minority and/or high poverty student populations.  What I’ve found thus far is some real, but pretty limited success, high attrition and that even the “non-selective” programs (most IB programs have a very selective  application process) seem to require students to  be at least at grade level when they begin.  This doesn’t sound like the students featured in the Madison Prep media campaign.

Since I’m on the topic of IB, one other question has occurred to me concerning how Madison Prep intends to implement the program.  Some schools do a “certificate” allowing students to pick and choose which classes they do IB and which they don’t; others do only the “all IB” diploma program; still others have some students on one track and some on the other.  This matters in terms of both vision and budget.  If not all students are supposed to be “all IB,” that will require more non-IB course offerings; if all are “all IB” the exam fees per student will go up (as will attrition).

I’m going to leave this for now, with a promise to expand on those areas that I think are most important and a reminder that thorough vetting is always better than faith-based policy.  Sifting and winnowing, a proud Madison tradition.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Is it “all about the kids” (and what that might mean)? — Take One (in relation to ULGM and Madison Prep)

Sir Mack Rice “Money Talks” (click to listen or download)

My training as a historian has taught me that all knowledge is tentative and that this is especially true when it comes to assigning motives to people’s actions.  It has also taught me to not accept self-proclaimed motives at face value , to only state an opinion  about the motives of others when there is a preponderance of evidence,  and to look  at actions and consequences as well as  rhetoric when trying to make sense of things.

With those caveats,  I think it is worthwhile to investigate the motives, actions and the consequences of the actions of Kaleem Caire and some of others associated with the Madison Prep proposal and the Urban League of Greater Madison in relation to public education.

Enemies of teachers and teacher unions have seized upon the phrase “it is all about the kids” to ridicule and attack teachers and their representatives.   With union and (almost all) others, of course it isn’t “all about the kids.”  Interestingly, those who blame unions for some or all of the ills of public education — like many of  the proponents  of Madison Prep — often offer their own versions of “it is all about the kids.”  Examples include  Michelle Rhee who named her group Students First (Valarie Strauss pointedly offered a column on Rhee’s organization titled “Rhee’s campaign is not about the kids.”) and the anti-Union political bribery has been done  in Illinois (and elsewhere) under the banner of Stand for Children ( a must-see video here).

This is the first of a series of three “takes,” distinct but related investigations of what else besides concern for “the kids” might be fueling the Madison Prep effort and some thoughts about how a sincere effort largely or even exclusively on behalf of “the kids” can lead to consequences (intended or unintended or both) that many of us see as very harmful to “the kids.”

Take One:  Why did the Walton Family Foundation spend  $157 million last year on “education reform” (and almost as much in previous years) and how this relates to Madison Prep?

The Washington Post reported that in 2010 The Walton Family Foundation gave grants totaling over $157 million to what they deemed “education” reform efforts.  The entire list is here, and you can see the previous years here.  Under “Shaping Public Policy,” you can find such groups as the Barry Goldwater Institute for Public Policy Research; the National Right to Work Legal Defense & Education Foundation;  Wisconsin’s own Right Wing Press Release machine the John K. Maclver Institute for Public Policy, Inc.; and Kaleem Caire’s former employers the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).

The Walton Foundation describes its educational policy work and goals in this manner:

For parents to be empowered to choose among high-performing schools, local and state public policy must allow for those choices to exist. To this end, we seek to build the capacity of organizations to help enact, strengthen and protect programs that empower parents to choose high-performing schools.

Investment Strategies

Within our Shape Public Policy initiative, we focus on advocacy groups promoting:

  • Public charter school choice;
  • Private school choice;
  • District reforms, particularly open enrollment and district school choice; and
  • Cross-sector parental choice, parents are empowered to choose across school.

Note that the ability “to choose” is the goal, not universal access.   I want to return to this in the context of their relationship to Kaleem Caire  and Madison Prep, but first I want to say that there is a preponderance of evidence that the Waltons’ motives have very little to do “high powered schools” or education (especially the kind of education that makes people ask questions about the doings of people like the Waltons) and everything to do with destroying the public sector.  The same can be said to a great degree about many of the other supporters of Caire’s work, with some overtly racist and segregationist dimensions for at least the Bradley Foundation, who funded The Bell Curve and the Kochs who have been active in the re-segregation of Wake County NC schools (watch this powerful video, appropriately titled ” Why do the Koch brothers want to end public education? “).

As I was working on this Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism released the first of his three part series on the Walton’s and other choice advocates’ activities in Wisconsin,  This saves me a lot of trouble preponding the evidence.  In part one you can read about the  tens of thousands of dollars in direct contributions to candidates, the uncounted indirect contributions via front groups,  the ties among individuals like the Waltons and Betsy and Dick DeVos and organizations such as the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice.    Not mentioned in part one of the Lueders piece is the relationships to American Legislative Exchange Council, another beneficiary of the Walton largesses and one that gets us closer to their public sector destroying mission.  You can also get a glimpse at some of the Walton’s federal activities via Open Secrets, here.

David Sirota’s “The bait and switch of school ‘reform“” brings it back to covers more of this, including the direct profit motive and the alliance of conservative and “neo-liberal” actors.  “Following the Charter Dollars” by Don Whittinghill of the Louisiana School Boards Association is also a must read (for those who want more on Louisiana, “NOLA Public Schools & School Privatization Part 1: Selected Bibliography of Articles, Books, Studies and Informed Opinions–2011 to 10/2010” is a good place to start; for the conservative movement ad the role of “think tanks” in general, this bibliography from the Commonweal Institute \\is very useful..

All these add to evidence that with the schools as well as in the workplace and for working parents, in the electoral arena,  in tax policy, on the environment and with so much more, The Waltons and there free market friends have interests that are very different than the well being of America’s children and very much geared toward weakening, undermining and destroying the good of the public sector.

Still, in a strange way if you believe that the entire American experiment in universal common schooling has been an irredeemable failure, public sector destroying may circle back to the quest for quality education .

I don’t believe that.  I’ve put in countless volunteer hours working for change and improvement in public education, but I’m more of a believer in the “Conservationist Ethic in Education”  and although it is often frustrating, Tinkering Toward Utopia has more appeal to me in public education than creative destruction, especially when the worth of what is being created in the wreckage is questionable at best.

For now though, let’s leave speculation about motives aside, take  them at their word  and assume that this is all or nearly all about the kids  and look at how that has worked out.  In essence that’s what Kaleem Caire has done and what he he is now asking the Board of Education and the taxpayers of Madison to do;  to follow the path prescribed by the Waltons and their ilk and see how it works out for the kids.

For the last decade  Kaleem Caire’s work has been funded by people like the Waltons and the Bradley Foundation, the (Milton) Friedman  Foundation and even the Koch Brothers.   It wasn’t always that way.  When he ran for the Board of Education in 1998 (the first Madison School Board campaign I was part of), the Capital Times reported

If elected, Caire says he will lead the fight against the ”very elitist conservatives who are trying to basically break the back of public education.”

Then he began working with or for these people.  Now he dismisses any objections to these alliances, as in the recent Wisconsin State Journal story:

“On the issue of vouchers, we agreed,” he said of his conservative benefactors. “On other things, we didn’t. I don’t listen to the guilt-by-association crap.”

He pointed out that other funders included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, considered more left-leaning politically.

First and as an aside, very, very few people in ed policy consider the recent work done by the Gates Foundation (or to a lesser extent the Joyce Foundation) to be “left-leaning.”  They are more right-center  in a landscape that has been shifting steadily to the right.

Second, I don’t think “guilt-by-association” is “crap.”

I understand building coalitions and working with people you might otherwise disagree with toward a common goal, but you do have to choose your comrades and I think there should be some limits on who you are willing to associate with.  Maybe that’s just me.

One reason for limits is that there is a danger of being used, of having the distinct agenda of one party to the deal advanced to a much greater degree than your common goals.   It has become common for conservatives and corporate America to use Civil Rights organizations and minorities to help advance their agendas.  It is no accident that Linda Chavez is the face of the (also Bradley Foundation backed) Center for Equal Opportunity, and their attack on affirmative action and bilingual education at UW and elsewhere.  Just this week there was a story about the Congress on Racial Equality opposing Green Jobs at the behest of their funder ExxonSupporters of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger include the NAACP, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, (yes, unions are not immune) the National Education AssociationThe national Urban League supports too.  All of these organizations have benefited from generous donations from the telecom behemoth.

I remember Caire’s mentor Howard Fuller saying “we use them, they use us,” but this seems to set the two parties up as equals in the exchange and we all know that one side has millions or billions of dollars at their disposal, while the other brings to the table little more than their energy and ability to complicate the racial politics.

So to see if the deal has been a good one, we have to return to “the kids.”  The Walton’s posit expanded choice as an end of itself;  Kaleem Caire has presented choice as a means to an end, the end being access to quality education and improved educational outcomes.  There is no question that the Waltons have been successful in expanding choice (and I’d add they have made significant progress in their less transparent goal of destroying public education).   Most of the evidence points to the conclusion that the aggregate impact of expanded choice on access to quality education has been negative.

It needs to be acknowledged that many individual children have benefited from expanded choice via vouchers and charters, but when the “greatest good for the greatest number” metric is employed, “choice” is found wanting, as is the Madison Prep proposal.

The latest study of the Milwaukee voucher program y by the Walton-funded University of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project concluded that in terms of academic achievement of students enrolled in private schools at taxpayer expense do on average no better than similar students  enrolled in MPS schools.   The mandated report from the Legislative Audit Bureau echoed this finding.  Less sophisticated readings of Department of Public Instruction data reveals that voucher students did worse on the WKCE than MPS students; this is true even if the comparison is confined to those eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Voucher proponents interested in student outcomes (no just choice for choice sake) have been reduced to pointing to superior graduation rates (a very questionable measure given the autonomy private schools have in this area) and making a convoluted case that the competition from vouchers has improved public schools.  The latter is both the first and last refuge of the free market reformers.  Their prime directive is that the competition of the market always produces progress.  It is also in the words of sometime Caire collaborator Jay P. Green of the Arkansas Project a win/win assertion for them.  Had the voucher schools performed better this would be evidence of success, but since they did not, the failure of privatization is redeemed by the success in the public sector, success that is said to depend o the presence of the failed private sector.   That’s the political/ideological analysis; more scholarly critiques, rejoinders  and dissents from the conclusions of the Arkansas Project and related “research”  check  the publications of the always worthwhile  National Education Policy Center Think Tank Review Project (and here), as well as Vouchers and Public School Performance: A Case Study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program  from the Economic Policy Institute.

The gold standard research on charter school choice is  the 2009 “Multiple choice: Charter performance in 16 states” publication from the The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford.   Here is their summary of the findings.

The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.

17% better, 46% about the same and 37% “significantly worse.”  Choice does not appear to have worked out very well for those who choose charter schools.

I’m not sure there is a rigorous way to assess the impact of “choice”  (charter and voucher), on the public schools.  Too much variation by state and local, too many variables all over and there are some things that I think are important that are difficult or impossible to quantify.  I do want to point to two things that should be part of the equation: money and the ill-defined nexus of support, energy, faith….

In terms of public money, things vary greatly by state, local and to some degree with each individual school.  We can safely say that in recent years federal policies have used federal funding to encourage and support charter schools and that this funding comes from an inadequate pool of total federal education dollars.   At the state level, funding mechanisms and comparative funding for public, charter and voucher-type schools vary widely and one must also consider who attends and the relative costs of educating different students (this is especially important with high needs special education students, who rarely enroll in choice schools).   In some locales and with vouchers in general the public “choice”  outlay per student is lower than the public school outlay; in others it is about the same or higher.  “Choice” proponents see the lower outlays as evidence of savings; opponents point to the how the loss of small number of students from any given school or grade rarely creates opportunities for savings via staff, facilities or program reductions (if you want to offer a class in Mandarin,  the cost will be about the same whether 15 or 25 students are enrolled) and see any diversion of funds as a problem.  I lean very much in the direction of the opponents.   One thing that is very clear is that a whole lot  of private money which could be invested in public schools is going to sell and support school choice.

In the case of Madison Prep, the money piece is clear and bad.  Ed Hughes has all the gory details based on the latest information (as far as I can tell — and I have asked — there is no final proposal or budget, but this link goes to a very basic budget document that came with the announcement of the second proposed school for young women).  The cost per pupil is about $15,000 in comparison to MMSD’s marginal cost per pupil of a little over $10,000 the payments to Madison Prep over five years would total over $27,000,000 and according to Ed Hughes’ calculations funding Madison Prep for hundreds of students will require annual cuts to the programs and services that serve the 24,000 students (12,000 in poverty) in MMSD.  Hughes works out the numbers in detail for “year four” and comes up with a $1.5 million estimate for that year’s Madison Prep related cut to the district budget.

Keep in mind that like all charter schools in Wisconsin, Madison Prep cannot selectively enroll based on race, poverty or academic success, so we really have no idea who these extra resources may go too.    In contrast, the district — if they have the resources — can and does target programs and services and allocations  based on a variety of factors.  I’ve advocated for the district to do this more extensively, more systematically and better.  Approving Madison Prep will further strain targeted programing and make equity based allocations harder and less likely.  Any way you look at the finances, the proposal almost certainly fails the greatest good for the greatest number test.  If it is about the kids, it is only about some of the kids, because most of the kids will see decreased investments in their futures.

I think the intangible aspects of “choice’s” and “choice” advocacy’s impact on public schools, what I called “support, energy, faith….” may be more important than the money.   I written before about the damage done by the self-fulfilling prophesy of looking to charter schools for innovation and creativity.  The big picture harm done by undermining support for public schools is touched on above (and indirectly in this post).   These are important, but I want to focus on something more immediate, the relationships between families and their schools.

An inevitable and often deliberate tactic of choice advocates is to play to and build on feelings of alienation and distrust families feel toward their schools.  The implicit and sometimes explicit messages are “you can trust us, you can’t trust them; we care, they don’t care; we know how to help your child; they don’t know how to help your child.”  A little distrust is healthy and probably justified, as is some skepticism about educational prowess.

However, when this goes too far (as it frequently does)  it strains and may break the family/school ties  of collaboration that are essential to success.   Even if  Madison Prep is approved many, many more struggling students will remain in district schools and these students need the combined and cooperative efforts of their families and the the schools.  If it is about the kids, this has to be taken into consideration.  Unfortunately, I fear that both in Madison and nationally much damage has already been done.

Pulling back a little (and circling back to innovation and creativity),  this cultivation of distrust also, further discourages dissatisfied parents and community members from getting involved in school and district issues, from demanding a seat at the table to fight for their vision of educational improvement.    In terms of helping the kids, there is much good that could be accomplished by having more diverse and dissatisfied  people working for district-wide improvement.

If there are a big take-aways or conclusions from all of this  they are 1. If access to quality educational opportunities and improved educational outcomes are the goal, if defined in this way “choice” advocacy is “all about the kids,” then it has not been a success; 2. “Choice” advocacy has been successful in damaging support for public schools; and 3.  Following the “choice” path laid out be the supporters of Madison Prep may help some, but would have a net negative impact on “the kids” of the district, who this is supposed to be all about.

I’m going to stop there (unless I go back and edit).  Kind of long for “take one.’  “Take two” will be much shorter, I promise (it is)

Note: A Public Hearing on the Madison Prep proposal has been scheduled for Monday October 3, at 6:00 PM in the Doyle Building Auditorium;

Thomas J. Mertz.

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Of two minds and no sense in Two Rivers

There is an editorial in the Herald Times Reporter on the Two Rivers school budget that presents contradictory ideas and ultimately makes no sense.  If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find more that doesn’t make sense.

The editorial titled “Two Rivers school budget laudable” is mostly in praise of the Board of Education for acting on their commitment ” to not raising taxes.”  To do this the Board “cut about $2 million from its $23.7 million budget.”  According to the editorial (the Two Rivers district does not post budget documents), about half of this amount came from increasing staff insurance and pension payments.  The rest from what the paper calls ” another $1 million in labor and materials savings.”

At least the editorial points out that the FitzWalker “tools” don’t actually work at the district level stating clearly “The budget repair bill provision is not, however, the panacea envisioned by Republican lawmakers.”

At this point I want to point out that nowhere in the editorial are students or the quality of education mentioned.  The closest it gets is a couple of places where providing “adequate services” is mentioned as a goal, each time along with and apparently inferior to ” protecting taxpayers.’  Two  paragraphs on Manitowoc, introduced as another district where the “tools” don’t work, is an example of this :

Other school districts are in the same situation. Manitowoc Superintendent Mark Swanson said recently that the tax levy could rise 9.5 percent under current revenue cap and state-aid formulas. The school board likely will need to take austerity measures, including possible staff reductions, to make sure that projection doesn’t become reality.

Swanson, along with other school and municipal leaders throughout the state, wonders what impact this all will have on their ability to provide the services they are paid to deliver — now and in the future.

The penultimate paragraphs capture the contradictory thinking:

Rhetoric about serving the taxpayer at the least possible cost rings hollow if all the tools to achieve that goal are lacking. Commitment to hold the line on taxes is one thing, getting there is quite another.

We hope that other school districts and cities in Manitowoc County follow the lead of the Two Rivers public schools and make a good-faith effort to hold the line on property taxes.

Note “serving the taxpayer” not serving the students, but even in this formulation the impossibility of quality services under these conditions is apparent.

The editorial closes with more praise for Two Rivers and holds that district up as an example for others to emulate:

Two Rivers has demonstrated it can be done, even against highly challenging odds.

“It” being not raising taxes, apparently.  How did Two Rivers do this?  That’s where things get even more senseless.

Some of the answers can be found in a Herald Times news story:

The contract with the teachers union even includes a provision that taxes would not be increased. He said the teachers agreed to a pay freeze and an increase in the amount they pay toward health insurance premiums if needed to balance the budget without raising taxes, but that didn’t become necessary.

First, what is in the water of those Two Rivers?  Why would a Union — if they could (and even pre-FitzWalker tax rates were not subject to collective bargaining, so I don’t see how it could have happened) — negotiate a tax freeze?  Senseless.

And remember that the editorial said that “About half of that savings resulted from the pension and health benefit requirement,” and this story also refers “teachers having to pay more toward their retirement and health insurance benefits,” so something is hinky or at least confused.  Are they paying more or not?

But the real senselessness is found where this and other articles detail where some of the other$1 million in savings came from:

The board had decided to take $235,310 from its fund balance to help balance the budget without raising taxes.

Depleting fund balances is unsustainable (and not an option all districts have).  Very little sense there.

I’m not sure where the other $700,000 plus came from but a column by District Administrator Randy Fredrikson gives a clue on some of it:

A significant portion of our levy is still paying off the new high school and Koenig Elementary School. We have aggressively refinanced these obligations when time and interest rates permitted. This refinancing has also helped us control the budget over the past several years

In order to achieve significant savings from refinancing you have to have significant debt, something that not all districts have.  Interest rates also have to be lower than the initial rate.  Or you could front load savings like MMSD did in 2009 when they refinanced, in that case (and maybe in Two Rivers), there were some real savings via lower rates, but these were weighted to the initial years and in fact payments increased for some future years.  Whatever is going on, it is not sustainable  — repeatedly refinancing is just kicking the can down the road —  and doesn’t make much sense as something to base a blanket recommendation for budgeting on.

One more piece in another story:

Case Elementary School was sold to St. Peter the Fisherman this past summer. St. Peter the Fisherman had been leasing the facility the past six years.

So I guess other districts should look to sell schools also.  Senseless.

What does make sense would be to make the number one priority and goal finding sustainable  means to invest in giving every child the Opportunities to Learn they need and deserve.

Thomas J. Mertz

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So you want to be my Senator?

Tammy Baldwin is running for the US Senate.  I’ve been pleased to have her as my Congressperson, but her record on education is undistinguished and unlike Russ Fiengold she rarely — if ever — has stood in opposition to the “New Washington Consensus on Education Reform.”

Today’s news, with her vote in favor of H.R. 2218, the so-called “Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act” brought this to mind.  So I thought I’d push a little and see what she has to say.

This is the email I sent her:

Congresswomen Baldwin

I was disappointed to see your vote in support of H.R. 2218, the so called “Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act.”

At a time when our public schools are struggling with severe state and local funding cuts and continue to suffer from under-funded federal mandates, this bill further diverts money to schools which serve very few students and a low percentage of the most difficult to educate.

For more detailed questions and objections see this brief from the NSBA: http://files.nsba.org/advocacy/Oppositionto2218.pdf

Plus I find the name very offensive. Public education funds should be used to educate students, not empower parents to exercise some free market fantasy. Why did you vote for this?

Thank you.

TJM

For more information, the Bill “fact sheet” is heresummary here:;  and text here.

I’ll post any response I get.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Save Our Schools Rally — Madison, July 30, 2011 — 3:00 PM

The Staple Singers -“Long Walk To D.C” (click to listen or download)

Yes, it is a long walk to D.C. and many of us who care deeply about the future of public education will not be able to join the Save Our Schools mass action there from July 28 to 3o.    Instead, some of us will be rallying in Madison.   Join us and help spread the word (download flier here and press release here).

Wisconsin Public School Advocates to Rally at the Capitol, Saturday July 30, 3:00 PM

A need for national, state, and local action”

As hundreds of thousands of public school supporters gather in Washington DC the weekend of July 28 to 30, 2011, Wisconsin advocates will hold a rally in support of the Save Our Schools agenda at 3:00 PM on Saturday July 30, near the State St. entrance to the Capitol.

“Public schools are under attack. There is a need for national, state, and local action in support of our schools. Wisconsin has been ground zero in this; the Save Our Schools demands from the Guiding Principles provide a great framework to build our state movement and work to expand opportunities to learn” said education activist Thomas J. Mertz.

The Save Our Schools demands are:

  • Equitable funding for all public school communities

  • An end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation

  • Teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies

  • Curriculum developed for and by local school communities

Doing more with less doesn’t work. “The time to act is now. While phony debates revolve around debt ceilings, students and teachers across the country are shortchanged. We need real reform, starting with finally fixing the school funding formula, and putting families and communities first. What child and what teacher don’t deserve an excellent school?” said rally organizer Todd Price, former Green Party Candidate for Department of Public Instruction and Professor of Teacher Education National Louis University.

The event will feature speeches from educators, students, parents and officials, as well as opportunities for school advocates from throughout Wisconsin to connect and organize around issues of importance in their communities.

For more information, visit: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org/ and http://saveourschoolswisconsin.wordpress.com/

Thomas J. Mertz

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Education, Taxes, and MMSD Board Goals

Graph from the Wisconsin State Journal, click image for accompanying story.

I was struck by the relationship between two things in recent Wisconsin State Journal stories.  The first of these is the graph above illustrating the cuts of over 150  Special Education staff positions (from Matt DeFour’s report on the new MMSD Middle School Mental Health initiative).    The second was this quote from Board President James Howard in Defour’s story on greater than anticipated cuts in state aid to the Madison Metropolitan School District:

School Board President James Howard said the board’s goal has been to not raise property taxes and, “I think that’s still our position.”

The short version of my reaction is that if your goal is hold the line on taxes, then I guess you are just fine with cutting programs and services, even those that serve the most vulnerable as Special Education does.  I’m not OK with that prioritization and am not OK with a Board and Board President who are.  The longer version  — including an analysis of how the 2008 referendum fits with this — follows.

[Note, as I was finishing this Board Member Ed Hughes put up a post indicating that he is more open to a property tax increase than president Howard and offering readers an opportunity to weigh in via a pollu.  When you are done here, read that post and vote).

Where to start?  I’ll begin with the obvious truth there are things that MMSD schools should be doing, ways they could be helping students, but are not and that these things cost money.   As a consequence of inadequate funding (among other things), MMSD is failing provide appropriate educational opportunities and services  for some students and excellent opportunities and services for many.  In other words, budget cuts impact education.  If you don’t believe the above, you should probably stop reading now.

The cuts to Special Education staff are one example (note I was cognizant of the 2006 cross-categorical teacher drop due to a change in case load allocations for “Speech and Language Only” students, the cuts to SEAs are somewhat surprising to me).  It is also worth noting that the approved Preliminary 2011-12 Budget appears to cut a further $3,231,626 from Education Services, the department in charge of Special Education, ELL and more (this figure may have changed slightly due to amendments, I’m using the initial Budget because the “approved Preliminary….” isn’t on line).  If any of these cuts come from Special Education, the district may be in danger of losing Federal Funding due to the Maintenance of Effort requirements  of IDEA which as explained in this memo from DPI  do not recognize “savings from reduced staff benefits as exceptions.”

Special Education is just one area where more resources would help; there are many others.  It should also not be forgotten that this preliminary — no new taxes —  budget was balanced by cutting staff compensation, as  Board Member Ed Hughes has said “underpaying our most important employees… a false economy.”

Now on to Board Goals.  I looked at in vain at the statues governing Boards of Education, at the MMSD Policies, at the District Philosophy, at the Mission Statement, at the Strategic Plan for any reference that could support not raising property taxes as a goal superior to providing the best possible education for the students in their charge.

You can look too, you won’t find it.  What you will find is much that calls for the Board to (in the phrase from the Strategic Plan) “vigorously pursue the resources necessary to achieve our mission,” the mission being:

…to cultivate the potential in every student to thrive as a global citizen by inspiring a love of learning and civic engagement, by challenging and supporting every student to achieve academic excellence, and by embracing the full richness and diversity of our community.

The last couple of MMSD budgets have each left about $10 million in revenue authority unused; the approved Preliminary Budget leaves (I believe) about $9 million (again, no final preliminary is on line, so I’m estimating).  It would not have taken, and does not now take much vigor to access these resources.  It may take  a little courage.

I realize that much has changed in the last few years — widespread economic hardship, cuts in state aid by both Democratic and Republican state governments, much slower than anticipated growth in property values, , the opportunity to cut staff compensation under the threat of union busting, dramatic cuts to the revenue limit base  — but despite all of these changes, if you go back to the principles and the details of Partnership Plan used to sell the 2008 Operating Referendum (which passed overwhelmingly) I think you can find plenty of justification for increasing property taxes in order to achieve the mission of the district.  Maybe not to the fully allowed limit (maybe) , but certainly beyond the level the Board President has stated as a goal.

That referendum is the primary reason why even with the FitzWalker mandated 5.5% cut in allowed revenue, Madison has the ability to maintain and even expand opportunities.   In more ways than one, that’s what over 68% of the voters agreed to.  They did not vote to freeze property taxes, they voted to raise them.

The strongest Partnership Plan based case for using the entire $10 million in referendum granted authority this year and every year is that that plan anticipated only a three year total of $9 million in cuts from cost to continue budgets, a total that was about doubled in the combined actual budgets of the first two years.

To me that is compelling, but some Board Members and others will point out the plan anticipated higher state aid and growth in property values than have been realized, and that these factors — along with general economic conditions — justify cutting at a higher level,  I don’t agree, but for the sake of argument I’m willing to stipulate that rather than relying on the “cuts from cost-to-continue ” metric,  we should also look at the total property tax burden.

Looking at the total levy instead of the total cuts is one way to deal with the diminished state aid and the lack of growth in property wealth to produce a conservative estimate of the tax burden agreed to by voters who ratified the Partnership Plan .  However if you are going to elevate  property taxes over other considerations in this manner it is only right to fully account for changes in property taxes and that includes dealing with the School Levy Credits.

As explained by Andy Reschovsky, the Levy Credits are categorized by the state as school aid but in fact function as property tax relief misdirected toward wealthier districts and property owners.  Shifting the almost $900 million a year allocated to the Levy Credits into general state school aids is a centerpiece of State Superintendent Tony Evers Fair Funding for the Future proposal.

Since 2006 the Levy Credits has almost doubled.  For the most part this has been ignored by School Boards in their Levy and Budget deliberations.  I think that was because districts almost always taxed to the max under revenue limits, so there was little reason to look at how the Credits impacted the net taxes of property owners.  One place where this would have made sense was in the otherwise detailed discussions of referendum related tax increases, but  — despite my advice at the time — MMSD did not include the Levy Credits in their presentations for  2008 referendum.

Since 2009-10 MMSD has ceased taxing to the max and has begun making minimizing tax burdens the top or near top consideration, the “goal.”  That means that the Levy Credits need to be part of the discussion, because as Reshovsky explains MMSD taxpayers benefit greatly from the Credits:

Using Madison as an exam-ple, in 2009, the average gross school mill rate was 9.79. The city’s school levy credit allocation resulted in a 1.76 mill rate reduction. Tax bills were then calculated using the net school mill rate of 8.03. Thus, the School levy credit resulted in a $352 tax saving for the owner of property worth $200,000 (.00176 times $200,000), and a tax saving of $880 for the owner of a $500,000 property.

For the purposes of this comparison of the levies anticipated in the Partnership Plan and  the actual/preliminary levies for the period covering the 2009-10 through 2011-12 budgets,  what is most important is that while cutting general school aids for the years 2009-10 and 2010-11, the Democrats increased the Levy Credits and that the Republicans in power have maintained these increases.  At the time voters approved the 2008 referendum, the Levy Credits for MMSD totaled 37,198,954.  For 2009-10 this increased to 40,934,795 and for 2010-11 they were 40,304,862.  I haven’t seen estimates for 2011-12, but the total funding for the Levy Credits is unchanged and it seems safe to assume that the share going to MMSD taxpayers will be about the same.

The table below uses  projected property tax totals from the Partnership Plan, the actual levies for the first two years and the levy from the approved preliminary budget for 2011-12.  To account for the Levy Credits  I’ve subtracted the Levy Credit increases over 2008 (3,735,841 for 2009-10 and 3,105,908 for 2010-11) from the levy totals (using the 2010-11 figure for 2011-12).

According to these figures,  MMSD could levy an additional $7,174,422 and still be within a  conservative interpretation of the tax increases the voters  approved with the 2008 referendum.  I think they should use at least this amount of their levy authority to advance their mission.

In the will of the voters as expressed in the referendum vote, I find no evidence that the community shares  Board President Howard’s stated goal to not raise property taxes and here and elsewhere I find much that supports reasonable tax increases.

Thomas J. Mertz

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