Or, Why Not to Let Government Get in the Way of Education
Scott Farnsworth, Editor-
I was going to write an informational piece this week about the Republican Assembly’s proposed School Accountability Bill, but it has been subject to such a continuous flow of change – one that prompted a legislator to remark, “Wouldn’t it have been easier to cancel this hearing yesterday and wait until a bill actually exists?” – that one would need a crystal ball to forecast the law that will ultimately be crafted. Conflicts between legislators, the two houses – and let us not forget potential violation of the state constitution – have caused Republicans to back off from their initial proposal.
Still, the fact that public education was made the subject of the very first bill proposed by the newly seated legislature does not bode well for what we will see from this session. In addition to some eventual form of an accountability bill, we will need to keep a close watch on the promised expanded voucher proposals, as well as the potential for some that may meddle with actual curriculum – the Common Core debate – which Governor Walker watered down to a call for Wisconsin to parallel Oklahoma in the “no requirement to follow” approach in his State of the State address this Tuesday.
More meaningless rhetoric – such is the result when education issues are taken up by politicians who have no background in our profession, no knowledge of the realities in our schools, and no understanding of the fact that there is no education policy – truly nothing – which can be enacted by state politicians that will have any meaningful, positive impact on local public education – even less so at the national level, as over a decade of Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top have so amply demonstrated. The simple truth is that none of the debate surrounding public education for the past thirty years has had anything to do with improving the educational services for students, but everything to do with political and financial interests.
The proof? Well, as has been shown repeatedly across the country, wherever for-profit schools have been honestly evaluated, their performance has ranged from marginally better to significantly worse than the public system – the origins of Obama’s call to hold for-profit colleges accountable for their results. Their performance is no surprise to educators. We are well aware of the intricate, unique and complex mix of factors that impact on the education of every individual – in each community. It may or may not be the case that “all politics is local,” but that certainly holds true for education. It is for this reason that “national-chain” schools – whether virtual, charter or post-secondary – are viewed with suspicion as to their quality and their commitment to the students in their care. The concept of some “silver bullet” curriculum being crafted by educators is laughable – but one crafted by politicians or businesspeople? – I may have just stumbled upon an improved definition for “madness.”
So, where does that leave the role of government in education? To set general standards? Given that the constitution guarantees the right of all residents to a public education from age 4 to 20, and that “the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the uniformity clause of the state constitution requires that the state provide ‘an equal opportunity for a sound, basic education,” the Department of Public Instruction should set parameters to define that “basic education.”
Beyond that, Wisconsin’s constitution also states that schools are to be “as nearly uniform as practicable.” This issue is one of funding – and since the state legislature is supposed to provide 2/3 of the public school budget, adequately and fairly funding public schools should be the primary education issue of state government. Such is especially the case given that the current “formula” by which state aid to districts is determined has be described as “broken” for as long as I can remember. It was challenged in suits brought before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in both 1989 and 2000 on “uniformity and equal protection grounds.” The court found the law constitutional in both instances, citing that neither claim nor evidence was presented that “any children lack a basic education in any school district.” Given the steady erosion that has occurred over the past decade, perhaps it is time to revisit the court-challenge option.
More immediately, it gives solid reasons to promote the implementation of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers’ Fair Funding for Our Future plan. DPI put a great deal of thought into this plan in order to both fix the funding formula and address taxpayer concerns about holding property tax levies in place. It gives greater weight to the needs of high-poverty and rural school districts, and provides school boards with more flexibility by granting them “additional revenue limit authority.” If it had been adopted when proposed previously, Kenosha Unified would be operating this year with an additional $7.5 million. Imagine what could have been done to address the class size issues at the secondary level had the district had the funding to hire nearly 100 more teachers!
So it’s “game on” in Madison. Please take part in WEAC’s call to write legislators and speak the truth with which you engage daily to the powers that be. Let them know that their first priority needs to be to level the playing field in financing before any fair process of accountability can be contemplated. Let them know, contrary to political expediency, that simple solutions to complex problems are always wrong.