Category Archives: We Are Not Alone

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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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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WAES School Funding Reform Update, the Week of October 26, 2009

waesgraphicFrom the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools. Table of contents below, with related material on AMPS linked to some items.  Click here for the full update.

  • WAES, others groups criticize Governor’s “funding plan”
  • Electors saying no to levy hikes resulting from state budget (and here and here and here)
  • Public, media understand the source of school funding problems
  • State of Washington wants pennies for its kids, too
  • Business leaders back expansion of early childhood education
  • WAES needs renewals, new members to continue work
  • Other states get it … what’s wrong with Wisconsin?
  • Colorado Supreme Court will hear adequacy challenge
  • WAES members take case on funding reform to the public
  • It’s time for America to pay attention to its schools again
  • Help WAES correct e-mail update glitch
  • School-funding reform calendar
  • The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) is a statewide, independent, membership-based organization of educators, school board members, students, parents, community leaders, researchers, citizens, and community activists whose lone goal is the comprehensive reform of Wisconsin’s school-funding system. If you would like more information about the organization — or on becoming part of WAES — contact Tom Beebe at 920-650-0525 or

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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Looking to the Future: The Crystal Ball on 2010-11

alexander_the_mentalist_crystal_seer_poster-p228218383358690222qzz0_400There is much appropriate attention on how Wisconsin school districts are dealing with the decreases in state aid and well below cost-to-continue revenue limit increases in their 2009-10 budgets.    More attention needs to be given to 2010-11.

The state budget came too late for many districts to make extensive cuts in programs and services (although Oshkosh closed two schools and districts around the state have scaled back), instead districts are spending down fund balances, refinancing to shift the costs to the future and raising property taxes to get through the year.

They are also planning for cuts in 2010-11.  Here is a sample of what school district officials from around the state have been saying recently about their budgets in the future.

Next year could be even worse for property taxpayers. The district projects a jump of $192.50 in taxes on a $250,000 home.

“These (numbers) are ugly,” said Kass. “What I try to do is always show what I believe to be the worst-case scenario. We have 12 months to figure out what areas of flexibility we have. We’ve done a lot of stuff this year. The problem is, when you come up with ways to address those concerns, they’re not there every single year. Areas like decreasing our debt service, which we’re able to do through some refinancing – that’s not going to be there in the future.”

Madison Asst. Superintendent Erik Kass, quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal.

Even with the 8% increase, it is anticipated that deep budget cuts of over $1 million will be necessary for the 2010-11 school year.

River Falls Superintendent, Tom Westerhaus.

While the district finalizes the 2009-10 budget, officials are already preparing for foreseen difficulties in the 2010-11 budget, for which stimulus money would not likely be available and which may further be hampered by changes in state law.

HalesCornersNow on the Whitnall School District.

School Board member Dave Szychlinski said it was a tough budget to prepare in light of the recession, especially given many residents’ own financial battles.

“We know that people are struggling, many people in our community have lost their jobs, and yet we have an obligation to prepare our young people for their futures,” he said.

The district was forced to make some tough decisions because of losses in state aid, and officials made about $833,500 in cuts, he said.

Next year will likely bring more cuts, Szychlinski added (emphasis added).

Franklin Board of Education Member Dave Szychlinski quoted in FranklinNow.

Despite last year’s surplus, [Reedsburg School District Business Manager Pat] Ruddy anticipates major deficits in the future if enrollment holds steady — as much as $1.2 million in 2010-11.

Reedsburg School District Business Manager Pat Ruddy quoted in the Reedsburg Times Press.

With the recent repeal of the state’s qualified economic law aimed at limiting teacher salaries and a shortfall in state aid, the district’s budget woes promise to only get worse, [Greenfield Superintendent Conrad] Farner said (emphasis added). School officials say the 15.1 percent drop in state aid was the main reason for the tax levy increase.

Farner and other school officials urged the public to contact their state representatives to voice concern over school funding mechanisms.

Greenfield School District Superintendent Conrad Farner in GreenfieldNow.

The projection for the 2010-2011 school year includes further reductions of teaching and support positions as the district continues to meet the challenges caused by declining resident enrollment.

MequonNow on the Mequon-Thiensville School District.

[Menomonee Falls School District Director of Business Service Jeffrey] Gross is projecting a $1.6 million deficit in the 2010-11 school and a $2 million deficit the year after that.

Menomonee Falls School District Director of Business Service Jeffrey Gross in MenomoneeFallsNow.

Neenah faces a $2.8 million budget deficit in 2010-11 after its $6 million in referendum money runs out. The shortfall represents about 3 percent of the proposed 2009-10 budget of $84.1 million.

The Northwestern on the Neenah School District.

He [Randy Fredrikson, district administrator for Two Rivers Public Schools] said the district will face similar financial circumstances next year.

“It’s not a one-year ‘we’ll get through’ (situation),” he said. “This is going to be the way it is in school budgets for a while.”

Randy Fredrikson, District Administrator for Two Rivers Public Schools in the Northwestern.

School boards across Wisconsin are developing their budgets for the 2010-11 school year, and the early calculations aren’t looking good for property taxpayers.

Appleton Post Crescent editorial “Blame school tax hikes on state budget.”

Something needs to be done for both the long and short term.  The long term answer is comprehensive school funding reform along the lines proposed by the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES), the School Finance Network and others.

The short term must come first and the answer is the Pennies for Kids dedicated sales tax for education proposal WAES is working on.

The prognostications quoted above are only about the 2010-11 budget; looking  beyond next year, the future of our state and our children are at risk if action is not taken to head off these scenarios.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Wisconsin School Referenda in Tough Times

20081008_mpls_levysign_33With most Wisconsin school districts contemplating or committed to sizable local property tax increases for 2009-10 and looking at continued service and program cuts combined with more property tax increases in 2010-11, this is not the best time to be asking the voters to approve a referendum.  Personal budgets are tight, the economy is uncertain and there is a delicate balance between program and service cuts as demonstrations of fiscal responsibility and program and service cuts undermining quality to the extent that it is difficult to garner further support (the “starve the beast” idea).

Yet because the problems caused by the latest state budget were piled on top of 16 years of struggles due to the broken state school finance system, some districts feel they have no choice.  These include ones seeking building projects, ones who feel they cannot endure any more cuts and continue to provide the quality of education they are committed to, and ones that are anticipating the expiration of a non-recurring referendum and the budget gap this will produce.

Although there has been little or no official acknowledgment or discussion, the Madison Metropolitan School District is in this last category.  At the end of the 2009-10 fiscal year, Madison will lose about $5.5 million in revenue authority for ‘maintenance and technology.”   The probable cuts for 2010-11 are bad; without this money they will be more horrific than anything we have experienced lately.  If the district wants to extend this authority, the time to start making their pitch is now.   I hope they do and I hope they get started.

Madison has not begun discussions, but others have.  There are five referenda on the ballot at special elections in October and November 2009 and more being contemplated.

Two of the ones that are set are for building projects.  These are being fast tracked in order to try for the 0% interest ARRA srtimulus bonds.

On November 3, voters in Pewaukee will vote on $24.95 million in debt authorization for classroom construction and other renovations, including a swimming pool (more from the district here and from a pro-referendum community group here).  That same day the Trevor-Wilmont voters will  decide on an $11 million plan to build an addition and renovate (more from the district here).

Pewaukee is also asking for $400,000 in annual recurring authority for general operating purposes for the new facilities.

Wheatland will go back to the voters on October 27, asking for four years of nonrecurring authority in the amount of $300,000 per year.  Nonrecurring authority in this amount expired at the end of the 1008-9 year, so this is in a sense a renewal.

A similar referendum failed last April (here and here).  The language is a great example in truth in marketing:

BE IT RESOLVED by the School Board of the Joint School District Number 1, Towns of Wheatland, Brighton, Randall and Salem, Kenosha County, Wisconsin, that the revenues included in the School District budget for the 2009-2010 school year and for three school years thereafter, to and including the 2012-2013 school year be authorized to exceed the revenue limit specified in Section 121.91, Wisconsin Statutes, by $300,000 a year, for non-recurring purposes in order to maintain the current educational level of the District and cover shortfalls due to decreased funding.” (italics and bold added).

Sad but true, the shortfalls are bigger than ever and referenda continue to be the only way to fully fund education.

On October 6, 2009 the Whitehall district has a three year non recurring maintenance, technology and infrastructure referendum on the ballot. The amounts are $200,000 for 2009-10, $150,00 for 2010-11 and $100,000 for 2011-12.  Superintendent Mike Beighley explained the thinking behind the referendum:

“When we look at the ability to improve our district with the limited increase in taxes, I think we have an obligation at least to present that to the public as an option,” said Beighley.

All across the state other districts see similar opportunities to “improve,” yet know that refrerenda are difficult and the odds of passage are less than 50%, so they don’t even ask.

Two districts struggling to finalize referenda plans are Wisconsin Dells and Rhinelander.

In the Dells, the possibility of the ARRA 0% bonding makes building an addition for 4 year-old kindergarten an attractive option. The district is holding a community meeting on September 9 and may go for the November 3 date.  They are also considering an operating referendum to make up for part of  the state budget created mess:

[District Administrator Chuck] Whitsell also said the district is facing an $800,000 budget deficit next school year, and because of no raise in the per pupil taxing authority it has been given from the state, the district might ask taxpayers to increase the revenue limits in another referendum question.

I hope they do ask for the operating money and get it.

In Rhinelander the need is clear, but the path to meeting the need has been continually blocked.  It is one of those districts that has been caught in almost all the faults of the current school funding system.  The district is geographically large, but the economies of scale are small or negative.  Enrollment has declined and incomes are not great, but property values remain relatively high.  Referenda have repeatedly failed.  There have been cuts for 16 years, 150 positions have been lost in the last seven years and more are on the table.

Here in Madison we think we have experienced the failures of the school funding system (and we have to a great extent), but I talk to my friends in Rhinelander and can only shake my head and think how lucky we are to have avoided the full weight of these failures.

Dating back to 2004, 10 operating referenda have been voted down in Rhinelander.  Yet it looks like they will try again.  I am filled with admiration for their perseverance and commitment.

The date hasn’t been set, but the word is  Rhinelander voters will get two questions this time.  One will ask for three years of $1,5 million revenue authority for operations and the other is for $13.7 million in construction bonding to maintain and remodel facilities.

Superintendent Roger Erdahl summed up the situation succinctly:

“It would stop closing buildings, it would stop laying off staff, which are the techniques we currently use to balance our budget.”

Here is what will happen if there is no successful referendum (from NewsoftheNorth.Net):

The following actions would be taken in the year 2010-11, in order of priority:

  • Close and sell South Parking building, requiring a mandatory grade re-configuration, for a savings of $117,000.
  • Close and sell Cassian-Woodboro building, with an accompanying grade re-configuration, for a savings of $120,000.
  • Reduce extra-curricular activities for a savings of $27,800.
  • Reduce custodial staff, for a savings of $472,000.
  • Reduce regular education paraprofessional staff, for a savings of $200,000.
  • Reduce full-time teaching staff by 12.5 by raising class sizes from the current low 20s to low to mid-30s in grades 4-12; or by reducing electives at the middle and high schools; or by doing a combination of larger class sizes and the reduction of electives, for a savings of $1 million.

In the year 2011-12, the following drawdown actions would be taken:

  • Reduce full-time staff, raise class sizes and reduce electives to achieve a savings of $296,000.
  • Decertify the elementary and secondary charter school and absorb these students into the other district school buildings for a savings of $240,000.
  • Reduce high school graduation requirements and move to a six-period day; reduce staff at the middle school and eliminate all professional travel and staff development, for a savings of $160,000.
  • Eliminate all Fund 10 staff development and travel and impose a moratorium on the acquisition of textbooks and instructional materials; eliminate middle school activities and travel; reduce administration staff, for a savings of $320,000.
  • Move 7th and 8th grade to the high school building; with grades 3 – 6 moving to the middle school building to reduce full-time staff, for a savings of $240,000.
  • Close and sell Crescent school building for a savings of $125,000.
  • Moratorium on all maintenance upkeep and repair of buildings, except for emergencies, for a savings of $500,000.

This is the destruction of public education.  This is the inevitable result of what Ruth Page Jones has called the “Going out of Business Plan” that is Wisconsin’s system for investing in education and the future.

Next time the Governor or a Legislator starts gabbing about how “education is a priority we protected in the state budget,” drop them a line and ask about Rhinelander.  Ask them if education has been “strengthened” as their political mouthpiece claims. Ask them what they are going to do to fix the mess they have made and inherited.

And be proactive.  The best way to help the children of Rhinelander and Wisconsin is to work for change via the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES).  Our state needs to look  for ways to fully fund the education of every child in every district, we need to consider a “Cents for Schools” dedicated sales tax, we need to make sure that the money is going where it is needed most, we need to do better.  WAES is the loudest and clearest voice saying these things.  Lend your voice and make the call for reform even louder.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Sandbagged! Now Teabagged?

School districts and school finance reform advocates were sandbagged by Governor Jim Doyle and the Democratic controlled Legislature.  For years they had said “if you put us in control, fixing school finance will be a priority.’  We helped put them in control, districts built preliminary budgets based on the assumption that even if they wouldn’t enact a fix right away, they also wouldn’t make things worse.

But that is exactly what they did, make things worse.

They did this in many ways.  They cut the money targeted to the neediest students and districts via categorical aid.  They cut the amount of total revenue available to districts to well below “cost to continue.”  They upped the property tax credits, money that never goes near a classroom, and called it more money for education. They saddled school boards and districts with the unwelcome dual tasks of finding new savings and raising property taxes (for more on how this is playing out in Madison, see here and here).  Sandbagged.

Now — as districts are finalizing their budgets,  setting their tax levies and raising property taxes — the teabagger anti-tax crowd is coming out.  So far the only report I’ve seen is from Washburn, but more may well be on the way.

The Ashland Daily Press reports that   80-90 people showed up at the district budget listening session, many came to protest.  On August 18th, the Board of Education had passed a preliminary budget with what is being called a 24% tax increase in the local property tax contribution (I did the math and the mil rate will go up about 15%, not small, but not 24% either).  Like in Madison, there is a combination of a recent referendum, high property values, and most of all, the miserable state budget.  At the time the budget was passed District Superintendent Sue Masterson laid out the choices:

“We are not happy about it, but there is nothing we can do about it.”

… Masterson said cutting back to what would essentially leave “reading, writing and arithmetic” would be damaging to the community. She said that as part of the referendum process, many cuts had already been made and that the district had made as many cuts as they could without cutting the quality of instruction. She said that further cuts could result in dramatically larger class sizes and might require building changes that the district couldn’t afford in any event.

“The only way you cut now is putting 40 kids in a classroom, eliminating programs, which will result in an exodus of new families and existing families from local schools,” she said. “Consumer science programs, music programs, tech ed programs — when you start cutting those kinds of things… well, today’s public education families expect a rounded education,” Masterson said.

This hasn’t changed, but now the voices from the community are louder and more strident.  The Daily Press described the message from the September 1, 2009 listening session (let me note that MMSD has scheduled no listening sessions on their budget revisions):

One message came across loud and clear: The amount of the increase is unacceptable — and they expect the school board to go back to the budget and rework it so the increase is much closer to the 9 percent increase approved last November in a referendum allowing the district to exceed revenue caps. The tough economy makes a big tax increase especially difficult, many said.

…”The bottom line is we need to cut, and we need to keep Washburn houses filled with families.”

As is usual with these things, they were less forthcoming when asked for suggestions about what to cut and how to save:

Many at the meeting were unhappy they were being asked for suggestions for cuts when they didn’t have a line-item budget to look at for ideas, and others said the reason they hire an administrator and elect a school board is to make intelligent fiscal decisions on behalf of their constituents. Still, some suggestions were made.

Those included delaying improvements to the bleachers, cutting the food service program, and cutting administration costs by sharing an administrator with other school districts.

It is likely that there are some savings to be had, but after 16 years of struggling with annual cuts due to revenues that have been inadequate by design, the potential savings are minimal.

I have some sympathy with the people who are unhappy with the tax increase.  They are correct that too much of the investment in education is coming from property taxes.

I also have much admiration for the Board and administrators who are defending education as a valuable investment and have not yet given in to the anti-tax sentiment (contrast with Madison, where sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the district and the anti-taxers).

The ones I have no use for are the those who say –as one attendee did — they are  “sick of hearing the excuse ‘the state did this to us.'”

This is both wrong — the state did do this to them — and counter productive, because  it cuts off productive protest directed at the state officials who actually have the power to make things better and electoral action directed to replace the ones who sandbagged us.  Getting mad at district officials over this makes no sense.

We’ve heard this sort of thing in Madison before (one sitting Board member still mouths these ridiculous ideas on occasion), but mostly the message that school funding is a state responsibility in need of a state solution has been heard.  This needs to happen all around the state.  Join the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools to help make that happen.

Thomas J. Mertz

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We are (Still) Not Alone

From the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (click on image for pdf).  2009-10 will look even worse.

From the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (click on image for pdf). 2009-10 will look even worse.

It has been a long time since there has been a “we are not alone” post, reminding Madison readers that school finance is a state issue and needs a state solution.

It has been so long that there are many, many  stories of school cuts and layoffs in Wisconsin from the last few months that I never got around to noting.

I want to begin with one of these older items —  a story from before the state budget was passed — and then move on to more recent post state budget things.  As districts struggle with the difficulties that budget has produced  it is essential that these be understood  in the context of 16 years of struggles under our broken school funding system.

The story is from Appleton and the headline says much about the erosion of education in Wisconsin: “Award bittersweet for laid -off Appleton teacher.”  Here are some excerpts:

Appleton North High School teacher Kevin Deering will remember the last day of the school year with equal parts pleasure and pain.

On one hand, students surprised him Thursday by voting him North’s
Educator of the Year. On the other, it was Deering’s final day on the job after
district cost cutting forced layoffs of dozens of teachers for next school year….

“It’s kind of an emotional thing,” he said afterward. “It’s a bittersweet ending
to get voted Educator of the Year and not being able to come back. When I
came to North I never thought I’d be leaving two years later.”

Deering, 27, is in his fourth year of teaching, two of those in Appleton. He
teaches physical science, genetics, and biology. He is an advisor for Link
Crew, a program that eases freshmen into high school life, and has coached
girls track at Appleton East, football at North and boys track at North.

“He will be missed,” said North Principal James Huggins…

The layoffs are the result of budget cuts that became necessary after a
failed referendum in February and account for more than half of the district’s
$3 million deficit for 2009-10 that was projected in March.

With the state budget in deeper trouble than first thought, that figure could go higher.

Unlike last year, when most laid-off teachers, including Deering, were called
back, the number who will not return is substantial.

Due to the finalized state budget, we can now say it is all but certain the 43 teachers laid off earlier in Appleton — and the 40  teachers laid off by Oshkosh in March and all those laid off previously in other districts because the school funding system has been broken for 16 years —  will not be called back.  From bad to worse.

Oshkosh is now looking at more layoffs.

In the state budget Oshkosh was hit with a 3.76%, $2.3 million cut in general aid, as well the minimal revenue limit raise and categorical aid cut all districts must address, creating a $3.2 million hole to be filled (see here for an initial compilation of the impact on of the general aid changes to all individual districts).

As I write this the Board of Education is considering a depressing list of options which includes layoffs to paraprofessionals, counselors, interpreters, administrators  and teachers (art, physical education and technology have been identified as possibilities); eliminating programs such as marketing; raising class sizes; raising taxes; and closing schools.

Update: WBAY and NBC26 report that the Board voted to close Green Meadow and Lincoln Elementary Schools.  They also rejected the option of not filling open positions.

Yes, closing schools, in July.  Video here from WLUK-TV of parent reactions to the news that their childrens’ schools are on the chopping block less than two months before the start of classes.

As the Northwestern reports, the families are angry.  They are pitting one neighborhood against another, saying that different schools should be closed and saying the “”Oshkosh Area School District’s administrators and board members unfairly targeted Green Meadow.”

The anger is understandable and even good, but it needs to be redirected to the state officials who put the district in this impossible situation.

A few paragraphs from one of the Northwestern news story:

Administrators feel trapped by the unexpected revenue shortfall – the state has never before cut aid to schools in the 16-year history of the existing funding formula – because employment contracts have already been set. Reduction options are now limited to vacant positions and staff who were handed initial layoff notices in February but not let go in the first $2.2 million in budget cuts approved in May.

That means the proposed staffing reductions are based on limited options rather than student needs or interests, Lang said.

“All of our choices have a negative impact one way or another,” she said. Staff cuts hurt immediately, while reductions to site budgets or maintenance services could haunt the district in future years.

“We’re already living with the long term detriments from cuts made 10 years ago,” she said, referring to the district’s deferred maintenance problem….

On one end of the debate sits Board President Ben Schneider II, who said he would struggle to support a plan that raises taxes more than 3 percent.

“I don’t want to shock the system by shifting it all onto the tax payers,” he said. “I’m of the opinion that during a terrible economy we should be reducing taxes.”

Board member Karen Bowen, on the other hand, said she’d prefer a double-digit tax increase to cutting any more teachers or programs.

“I don’t think people really understand what our district will look like if we have to cut much deeper,” she said.

Bowen is right that people don’t understand.  Otherwise you wouldn’t have powerful people like new Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate making ridiculous and insulting claims that the state budget “strengthened” education.   Districts need to educate their residents about the state of school finance in Wisconsin and then we all need to educate our state leaders and get them to act.

Bad news in Northeastern Wisconsin also, especially Door County.  Because of vacation homes, Door County is a high property value area  In combination with declining enrollment this has meant real problems for these districts under Wisconsin’s school finance system.  Since the full time residents who vote in referenda are not wealthy, they have also had great difficulties applying those temporary band aids.  The decline in relative state funding in the recent state budget aggravated the existing problems (click here for details of  how the similar “The Lake Effect”  combination has hit Northern Tier districts).  Here is what the Press Gazette reports some Door County districts (and others) are facing:

  • “Sturgeon Bay is set to take a 15.19 percent hit in general aid, according to this month’s estimates from the state education department. That change will take the 1,100-student district’s general aid allocation from nearly $5.2 million to nearly $4.4 million.”
  • “The Southern Door district also is facing a 15.19 percent decrease in general aid, according to state estimates. That change will mean the district takes in $3.2 million in general aid instead of nearly $3.8 million.”
  • “The Sevastopol School District is facing almost an identical cut, an estimated 15.18 percent, as is the Gibraltar School District, an estimated 15.17 percent.”
  • “In Marinette County, the Crivitz School District is facing a 15.18 percent decrease in general state aid. Funding could drop by about $172,000, from $1.1 million to $963,000.”
  • “In Ashwaubenon, the reduction will drop general aid allocation from more than $12.5 million to nearly $11.9 million.”

Bad all over.

A few more.

Wausau Daily Herald, “Everest, Merrill school districts face shortfalls.”

Reedsburg Times Press, “School will resort to tax hike.”

Racine Journal Times, “”Unified prepares for budget task ahead.”

Kenosha News, “Lower state aid might force cuts in Salem schools” (AMPS readers might recall the referendum struggles in Salem).

LaCrosse Tribune, “Tax hike ahead? La Crosse school officials point out ‘worst-case scenario.’”

And one last reminder that despite what Governor Jim Doyle has tried to get you to believe, at the local level ARRA Title I and IDEA stimulus  funds mostly cannot be used  not make up for the short falls.

Racine Journal Times, “Stimulus, strings attached: Four federal grants for Unified won’t help much with budget shortfall.”

Stay tuned for more (sadly).

If you want less, you have to get involved in the reform efforts.  Click here for a guide to organizations to join, links to contacting the media and state officials and more.

If we all sit back and shake our heads at how bad things are but do nothing more, this will never get better.  Get involved.

Thomas J. Mertz

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School Finance Action in Los Angeles

Video from Democracy Now (via Laura Chern).

Watch this report on why Los Angles advocates for adequate education investments have begun a hunger strike.

If they can do that in Los Angles, the least you can do is take an hour or more on June 16 to participate in the Walk on the Child’s Side.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Madison Common Council Supports “Walk on the Child’s Side” Rally

Mayor Dave and kids

The Madison Common Council voted this evening to support the “Walk on the Child’s Side” rally slated for June 16th. The resolution read as follows:

WHEREAS, investment in education is essential to the quality of life and future prosperity of Madison and the State of Wisconsin; and
WHEREAS, for 15 years the school funding system of the State of Wisconsin has produced annual shortfalls between costs and allowed revenues, resulting in annual program cuts of between 1% and 2% for most school districts; and WHEREAS, the school funding system of the State of Wisconsin produces inequities in taxation and educational opportunities and does not adequately provide for the distribution of resources based on the diverse circumstances of students and districts; and WHEREAS, the school funding system of the State of Wisconsin’s over reliance on property taxes places school districts in harmful competition with Counties and Municipalities; and WHEREAS, achieving adequate, equitable and sustainable investment in education requires action by state government; and

WHEREAS, on June 7, 1999 the Price County Citizens Who CARE and their allies began a 240 mile “Walk on the Child’s Side” to carry the message of the need for education finance reform to the Wisconsin State Capitol, arriving in Madison on June 17, 1999; and have repeated this walk in subsequent years and have continued working for education finance reform; and WHEREAS, these efforts have been instrumental in bringing public attention to the need for education finance reform; and WHEREAS, On June 16, 2009 at 11:00 the Price County Citizens Who Care will host a 10th Anniversary “Walk on the Child’s Side” Rally and March in Madison, Wisconsin; and WHEREAS, the Mayor and Common Council of the City of Madison Wisconsin recognizes the need to support our local school districts and that fundamental changes in Wisconsin’s school funding system are necessary;

and WHEREAS, the Mayor and Common Council of the City Madison supports efforts to call public attention to this need and seeks to build coalitions to bring about education finance reform. NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, the Mayor and Common Council of the City of Madison Wisconsin extends support to the “Walk on the Child’s Side” 10th Anniversary Rally and March and encourages the citizens of Madison to support and participate in the “Walk on the Child’s Side” 10th Anniversary Rally and March.

Robert Godfrey

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