Friday, July 31, 2009

Major reform needed in funding for public education

It came as a breath of fresh air when the Legislature managed to pass a state budget before the July 1 start of a new fiscal year. After the painfully drawn out process of '08, it was a welcome change.

Unfortunately, that timeliness came at a cost. Namely, a 15% cut in funding to nearly 100 school districts, including Madison. That's $9.8 million dollars lost, and combined with the $2.8 million in other state cuts, we're talking a $12 million reduction for the Madison School District.

According to Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts (D-Middleton), this worst case scenario is the result of lawmakers using outdated data to make their funding predictions. They'd originally thought that cuts would be limited to no more than 10%, but just a few days after passing the budget, the Department of Public Instruction "worked up preliminary general school aids figures for the 2009-2010 school year a few days later, about 100 districts wound up with a 15 percent cut."

Not good. Not in the least.

And the news only got more glum after Pope-Roberts added, "I don't think it can be fixed...I think we're going to have to live with it."

As Forward Our Motto pointed out, Pope-Roberts is one of the good ones, working hard for meaningful education funding reform, so hearing the dire news from her may be especially poignant.

Madison School Board President Arlene Silveira has also chimed in to voice her displeasure with the way things were/are decided:
This grim situation is a result of a poor economy, outdated information used by the Legislature, and a Department of Public Instruction policy that penalizes the district for receiving one-time income (TIF closing). Federal stimulus funds will, at best, delay cuts for one year. We are left with a gaping budget deficit when many fiscal decisions for the upcoming school year cannot be reversed.
There are several different theories about what needs to happen for the situation to be improved. Pope-Roberts backs the School Finance Network (SFN), which advocates, among other things:
...increasing categorical aid for children with disabilities and special needs, for small, rural school districts, and for low income students — making the system more equitable while ensuring that all children have the opportunity to learn. The proposal also reconfigures how annual per pupil increases are calculated, moving them from $264 to $350 in year one, and then tying future increases to overall statewide economic growth...The plan increases state aid and expands homestead property tax relief, generating lower property taxes and providing tax relief for homeowners.

The state Legislature has the responsibility to fully fund public education, as mandated by the state’s Constitution. There are many funding options for state leaders to improve our school funding system, including closing corporate tax loopholes, eliminating tax breaks and subsidies for companies that do not keep jobs in Wisconsin, changing the sales tax system, eliminating sales tax exemptions, and adopting strategies to increase federal support for the state.
Holding the Legislature accountable for fixing the system appears to be the most common theme, and indeed, their past insistence on placing caps on revenue for school funding and general disregard for the public system has certainly contributed to the current crisis.

Frankly, I've never understood arguments for less education funding. Most districts do a good job of cutting out waste and programs that don't work--they've had to, as law makers continue to strip resources from them--so we can't readily place all blame on their shoulders.

Unfortunately, then, it is too often our elected representatives who set out to slash costs, seemingly ignoring the short and long term benefits of an educated populace.

And now we may just have a perfect storm on our hands. Years and years of imposed revenue caps now combine with those "accidental" 15% cuts, and all smack dab in the middle of a recession, and it's the children who'll suffer the worst. They're about to lose essential programs (art and music are usually the first to go - but we're talking assistance for those with learning disabilities and after school programs that are often life savers for kids from lower income neighborhoods or troubled home lives).

How do we, as a state, find the money to keep all of these things, to keep up with meal programs and up-to-date textbooks, fixing leaky school buildings, paying good teachers what they're actually worth, etc.?

That's the question, isn't it. Traditionally, school funding is tied to a particular district's property taxes - but what about those areas that are less affluent? Why shouldn't kids from lower income families/neighborhoods get the same quality of education experience as those lucky enough to be born into greater wealth? They should, no question.

And that's where state money is (supposed) to come in. The problems arise when your lawmakers aren't willing to throw down the cold hard cash to keep things equitable. That should be unacceptable, but we in Wisconsin have allowed them to withhold and place limits on what can be raised for going on 15 years now. It's caused a steady and pernicious backslide in our state's national standings in things like per-pupil spending, decreasing our ability to properly meet the needs of all children.

So what do we do?

We hold the Legislature accountable by only electing those representatives who actually see through campaign promises to increase support for public education, work hard on funding reform, and place greater emphasis on the importance of public education.

We then make sure that they have as accurate and up-to-date numbers as possible with which to work when they're crafting the state budget.

We remove and/or ease overly restrictive school funding revenue caps, allowing individual districts to make decisions about how to raise money based on the needs of their areas.

We may even look into refining how property taxes are determined and used (Christian Schneider recently penned a column for WPRI that I thought offered up an intriguing plan regarding taxes, though I don't know enough of the details to say whether or not it might actually work).

Most importantly, we get back to placing a premium on the importance of quality public education in this state (and country, for that matter). Private institutions have their place, but it is crucial that we maintain access to truly great instruction for every child, no matter their financial background, location, or any other factor. Period.


Joe said...

Wait, the legislature addresses budgetary issues in the budget?

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Rodneyarvid said...


Recent discussion by the President to extend the school year suggests he knows little about the system, its roots, and the challenges we face today.
Most of the west has been operating on the same principle of education for the public for over 100 years. The principle of reading, writing, and math are provided to the general public free of charge (though we pay taxes for it in reality). The actual courses and topics studied have varied over the years but mainly the three topics are the core of the system. The methods to so call “teach” the pupil have not changed much in that time period. The hitting of the knuckles and tapping with the pointers have all but gone. The basic concept still exists: the pupil is an empty shell that needs to be filled with knowledge by the teacher.
The IQ test, a method to define intelligence, was introduced in the early 1900s by the French Psychologist Binet to determine who was normal and who was inferior. Almost all school systems took this method and used it to grade pupils in most activities.
One of the modern ways to think about humans is called EQ (Emotional Intelligence), which started to be prominent in the 1990s from well know men in the field such as Dr. Goldman and Dr. Gardner. Their way to differentiate between us is through skills such as music, art, sport, etc.
The holistic way of thinking is also a major force that one obviously must consider to be relevant in the education arena.
The present system in most western school systems is the same: Subjects are separate and graded based on IQ testing methods. Why? It’s easy to administer and manage. If we consider that the average person spends 12 years in public schools and probably cannot balance a checkbook, we can postulate that something needs to be adjusted.
It is obvious that the average teacher does not want to work longer days and have less vacation. Likewise, the pupil does not want to spend extra time at tasks that he is probably already bored of after lunchtime.
The well-known Dr. Napoleon Hill, author of the Science of Success, suggests that the time spend at school can be cut dramatically. How? The methods used and the preconception of a pupil and her abilities prior to attending school. If the teacher considers a pupil as not knowing something then she is treated that way.
We must also decide what is the purpose of public schools today. Is it a place to drop off the kids while the parents work (the lucky ones to have a job) or is it a place for actually providing our children with the key to their future success?
Most teachers would agree that setting up a lemonade stand has more possibilities of learning almost all possible topics in school in a fraction of the time compared to tradition methods. It is also realistic, holistic and fun. This method also can be extended to college and university levels as well.
The world is what it is because of the education, or lack thereof, we receive in our lives. There is no need for recessions, depressions, wars, police, accountants, lawyers, and politicians if the environment is set up so that the pupil can grow with a mission based on solid principles of conduct, including the act of civil involvement and voting.
A longer school year is not needed.
Rodney Josephson, Barre

The Lost Albatross