Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Education (page 1 of 2)

What the Supreme Court Election Means for School Funding in Wisconsin

chalkOn April 5th, Wisconsin will choose a new Supreme Court justice. While elections to the Court are normally nonpartisan affairs, this election is drenched in political bickering between Republicans, Democrats, and public employee unions.

Public union supporters argue that if incumbent conservative Justice David Prosser is defeated by liberal challenger Joanne Kloppenburg, the Court would then be fertile soil for a lawsuit overturning Scott Walker’s recent law limiting collective bargaining for government employees. They argue that the law was passed improperly, given the last-minute maneuvers by Senate Republicans to vote on the collective bargaining bill without three-fifths of the Senate members in attendance.

While the individuals thinking the law can be overturned in the courts are well-meaning, their chances are a longshot. The law paving the way for passage of the bill could not be more explicit. Pushing for the Court to take on Walker’s law might be a good fundraising ploy, but it most likely will fall short.

There is, however, a more serious potential court challenge Walker should fear, and it could rest entirely on the vote of Justice Prosser. Every few years, Wisconsinites can count on certain recurring events like clockwork – the Beatles will become fashionable again, citizens will be shocked to find out that eating right and exercising are the key to being skinny, and the state’s school aid formula will be challenged in court.

The last time Wisconsin’s $10 billion annual school funding framework was seriously challenged was in 2000, in the case of Vincent v. Voight. The case, brought by the state’s largest teachers’ union (WEAC), argued that Wisconsin’s school funding system did not adequately equalize funding among both “rich” and “poor” districts, as required by the state constitution. According to Article X, Section 3 of the Wisconsin Constitution, “district schools” had to be “as nearly uniform as practicable.”

By a slim majority, the Court held in Vincent that the current school equalization formula met the standard set forth in the state constitution. (Prosser, while in the majority, dissented in part because he thought the majority opinion favored the petitioners too much. He wrote that the majority opinion granted a heightened standard of equality not found in the Constitution – which he deemed “Equality Plus.”)

But the K-12 funding framework, while still in place, was hanging by a thin reed. Justice Crooks’ majority opinion almost openly invited further litigation.

For instance, Crooks wrote that one of the reasons the equalization formula was allowed to stand was due to the large funding increase the state had offered several years earlier:

“So long as the legislature is providing sufficient resources so that school districts offer students the equal opportunity for a sound basic education as required by the constitution, the state school finance system will pass constitutional muster.”

Scott Walker’s 2011-13 biennial budget necessarily reduces state funding to local school districts by over $900 million (much of which will be made up by increased pension and health care contributions from teachers). If the constitutionality of school funding formula hinges on the state providing “sufficient resources,” how will Walker’s budget affect the Court’s stated precedent?

The Vincent case arose at the same time a national movement pushing school funding “adequacy” was taking to state courts throughout the country. State Supreme Courts routinely mandated more school spending, in some cases increasing state spending by 20% simply through judicial fiat.

In November of 2006, New York’s highest court ordered the state to pay an additional $1.93 billion in the name of educational funding “equity.” In 2005, Kansas’ Supreme Court ordered the state to pay $148.4 million as a result of an “adequacy” lawsuit. That year alone, school finance systems in Texas, South Carolina, Idaho, Arkansas, and Kansas were deemed unconstitutional. Just this week, a judge in New Jersey found Governor Chris Christie’s education cuts failed to provide a “thorough and efficient” education for that state’s schoolchildren.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court could easily be one vote away from not only dismantling the current equalization formula, but overriding Scott Walker’s proposed funding shift to local school districts. With teachers’ unions having lost their ability to collect compulsory dues from their members, their power now shifts to the courts, which could mandate higher salaries and benefits in the name of “adequacy.”

And while she has been coy in many of her pre-election interviews, there is a reason they will be supporting Joanne Kloppenburg.

April 1, 2011

Fighting “Last In, First Out”

With funds available to public schools shrinking, many schools in the upcoming months are going to be forced to shrink their staffs.  In many cases, schools determine which teachers to let based on seniority – known as the “Last In, First Out” philosophy, as described in this Politico profile of education crusader Michelle Rhee.

The problem with “LIFO,” however, is that it automatically jettisons young, energetic teachers in favor of older teachers that may be more set in their ways.  Recently, the Refocus Wisconsin project addressed this issue by talking to an art teacher who was let go simply because of the timing of her hiring:

Public School Principals: No Good Turn Left Unpunished

Over at the mothership, Sunny Schubert has a wonderful column about a teacher she knows that has attempted to infuse his school with a little class. Zach, the fresh faced 22 year old newbie, decided he needed to set himself apart from his 7th grade students, so he started wearing a tie to school. For this transgression, he was mocked by the veteran teachers, none of whom saw any reason to dress up for school. In a show of solidarity with their teacher, Zach’s students actually started wearing ties to school – while the other teachers took time out of their day to trash his classroom with gaudy neckties.

This story is good enough – but Schubert also mentions a wildly entertaining “scandal” brewing at Glendale Elementary School in Madison, which serves a large number of African-American children. (In fact, Glendale has the highest percentage of poor and minority students at any Madison elementary school.)

In 2005, Mickey Buhl took over as Glendale’s principal, with the purpose of instilling the school with a new attitude and more innovative techniques. Since he took over, the school’s test scores have risen dramatically.

Yet Buhl’s techniques haven’t sat well with a handful of the school’s teachers, who have filed a number of complaints against the principal. Schubert points out these complaints are summarized in this 27-page attorney report posted at the Madison.com website.

It is an astounding document. It details the travails of a principal merely trying to provide the best education for his kids, yet having to spend most of his time refereeing the most banal, petulant disputes between teachers and himself. Even when Buhl attempted to mediate disputes between teachers or between a teacher and himself, the teachers generally lawyered up and demanded a teacher’s union representative be present.

Among Buhl’s transgressions that earned him complaints:

  • Upon taking office, he urged teachers to stop “gossiping” amongst themselves. Teachers found that the term “gossip” made them “uncomfortable.”
  • He often tried to talk to uncooperative teachers who either insulted him or simply walked away. Many thought his insistence that he be treated respectfully were “intimidating” and it made them uncomfortable.
  • An attempt to tell a food service worker to stop raising her voice to the kids eventually led to that worker contacting her representative at the food workers union to file a grievance. The worker also refused to do any tasks that went beyond her duties as a food service worker, even for a few minutes.
  • Sometimes, Buhl would attempt to compliment his teachers by comparing them to his former school. He would tell them they do this-or-that much better than he had seen in the past. According to their complaint, some Glendale staff members were “uncomfortable with Mr. Buhl’s use of comparisons as compliments.” They believed he shouldn’t be “putting down” people in order to “build them up.” (A hearty eye roll and head shake is warranted here.)
  • One teacher who had previously resigned offered to return as a volunteer. Buhl thought it was a good idea. Of course, the union objected and filed a complaint, as they generally oppose volunteers doing the jobs of paid teachers. That teacher then gave up and never volunteered.
  • At field day in 2008 and 2009, Buhl would play with the kids, picking up a hose and squirting them with water. Some of the teachers were squirted, as well. Uncomfortable. Complaint.
  • Buhl and many of the teachers disagreed over the school’s bullying policy. Buhl thought bullying was repeated instances of unwanted touching, while the teachers thought one touch was enough. To demonstrate, Buhl pushed one of the teachers as a demonstration to ask if that was “bullying.” Uncomfortable. Complaint. (Although it doesn’t say the teacher herself complained – it merely says the fact he touched her made “some staff members” uncomfortable.)

In other instances, Buhl is accused of “raising his voice” or using “threatening body language.” Yet after reading through all the snarky insolence he had to endure, it’s a wonder he kept his cool as well as he did. (In many instances, problems arose with the school’s interpreters for deaf students – had I been principal, I may have sent them an unmistakable signal in sign language.)

Someday, someone is going to write a great movie contrasting how elementary students learn the basics of how to interact and relate with one another – while each disagreement their teachers have with one another ends up in a soap opera-style drama or a union grievance. Clearly, the 4th graders are more mature than many of their teachers.

And as for Buhl, this is the thanks he gets for trying to give kids the best education they can get. He was exonerated on all of the complaints mentioned in the report, yet he clearly spent hours and hours trying to mediate the BS the teachers slung at him. It’s mind-boggling to think what goes on at elementary schools that don’t have principals as dedicated to the children.

Doyle’s Charitable Sleaze

So we now know Governor Jim Doyle has shifted $1 million of his now-defunct campaign fund over to the Greater Wisconsin Committee, a political group intending to run television ads to smear Republicans in the upcoming fall election.

Perhaps as interesting as the fact that Doyle chose to use $1 million of his own money to trash either Scott Walker or Mark Neumann is the potential other options he had at his disposal.

Wisconsin Statute 11.19(1) governs how “residual” campaign funds can be spent:

Residual funds may be used for any political purpose not prohibited by law, returned to the donors in an amount not exceeding the original contribution, or donated to a charitable organization or the common school fund.

There you go – you can use the money for campaign stuff, give it back to the donors, give it to charity, or give it to schools.  Given that list, you can easily see where Doyle’s priorities lie.  Certainly can’t think of any charities that need help in a bad economy.

Remember when Doyle was so irate about the federal government not sending “Race to the Top” money to Wisconsin’s schools?  Remember all his indignation about how desperately the state’s educational system needed an infusion of cash?  Well, when given the chance to help out the common school fund, Jim Doyle turned his back on them and decided instead to spend his money on ads accusing Scott Walker of wanting women to get breast cancer.

On the bright side, school kids will still be using Wisconsin history books that were written before Doyle took office.  Now they won’t be able to read about the time he chose partisan sleaze over hiring teachers.

Oh, and one last thing – up until now, the links between Doyle and Barrett have been circumstantial.  (Obviously, Barrett has been pretending that he thinks this “Jim Doyle” is a character on “Jersey Shore.”)   Think there’s a pretty direct link now?

Jim Doyle Wants Accountability, Apparently

Look out – Jim Doyle is irate.

Word came down today that Wisconsin was passed over for $254 million in federal “Race to the Top” funds, for which Wisconsin had applied in January of this year.  You may recall that in order to qualify for the funds, Wisconsin had to change their law that specifically stated that student test scores couldn’t be used in determining teacher compensation levels.  Early in 2009, President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, criticized states that shielded teachers from their students’ test scores, and threatened to withhold TOP funds from states that continued the practice.

Of course, when the federal government is handing out “free money,” the state legislature looks at them like my dog looks at me while I’m eating popcorn.  Democrats in the Wisconsin Legislature scrambled to put together a bill that did as little as possible to make any real change, then rushed it through both houses just under the deadline to apply for federal money.  (Their bill made connecting teachers with student test scores a permissible subject of bargaining – so it could happen, but only if the teachers’ union agreed to it. I’m sure the feds were like “wow – Wisconsin just cobbled together the most tepid bill possible in a naked attempt to get their hands on our money – they mean business!)

In the mean time, Governor Doyle called for a bill mandating mayoral control of Milwaukee Public Schools.  And he wanted that bill so badly, that the subject barely crossed his lips for the next eight months.  (Chances are, the maids at the governor’s mansion will find the original copy of the bill in one of Doyle’s couch cushions.)

Of course, in the first seven years of Doyle’s administration, there was virtually no attempt to improve schools through enhanced accountability measures.  MPS slugged along, while more and more children dropped out.  But suddenly, like a dancer at a strip club, Jim Doyle is willing to strap on the high heels and take to the pole when President Obama shows up and throws dollar bills at him.

What’s most amusing, however, is that Doyle seems to want to blame everyone else for his predicament:

“The train is leaving the station. But because the Milwaukee School Board continues to cling to the status quo – and because the State Legislature has so far failed to make real reforms – Wisconsin is not on that train,” Governor Doyle said. “Today’s announcement should be a wake up call to many. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made it clear. The federal government will provide significant resources to states that are serious about reform. Milwaukee needs clear, consistent, accountable leadership focused on reform.”

Anyone want to guess where “Jim Doyle – Champion of Accountability” was in 2003?

2004?

2005?

2006?

2007?

2008?

Oh yeah – he was busy harassing private choice schools – trying to make them more closely resemble the public schools that he now claims are so unaccountable.

Wisconsin: Separating Teachers From Results

This weekend, news broke that Wisconsin may not be eligible for certain federal education funds because of an interesting law on the state’s books.  Under Wisconsin law, teacher pay cannot be influenced in any way by student test results – meaning, the amount we pay teachers are legally not allowed to have any relation to how much their students are learning.  This may effect the state’s eligibility for $4.3 billion in federal “Race to the Top funds,” which will be distributed to the states “with positive records of what the [education] department considers school reform as well as plans for additional improvement.”

According to Chapter 118.30(2)(c) of the Wisconsin State Statutes, “the results of examinations to pupils enrolled in public schools, including charter schools, may not be used to evaluate teacher performance, to discharge, suspend or formally discipline a teacher, or as the reason for the nonrenewal of a teacher’s contract.”

Laws such as these that provide a firewall between teachers and student performance recently came under fire by President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan.  In an interview with the New York Times, Duncan specifically singled out Wisconsin for having such a law on the books:

“Believe it or not,” Mr. Duncan said, “several states, including New York, Wisconsin and California, have laws that create a firewall between students and teacher data. I think that’s simply ridiculous. We need to know what is and is not working and why.”

In fact, this issue was the subject of a WPRI report released in May by researchers Mark C. Schug Ph.D. and M. Scott Niederjohn Ph.D.  Among their research and recommendations two months ago:

These effects can serve as measures of performance in performance-based compensation programs. To the extent that value-added testing does provide valid and reliable measures of performance, the argument for traditional salary schedules is nullified…

As indicated in our survey, many Wisconsin school districts have moved to embrace new trends in testing. Nonetheless, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has been slow in providing leadership in this regard. While the DPI has taken some positive initial steps toward a statewide value-added assessment system-including the development of a statewide data system, working with outside consultants to consider growth-oriented models and forming a technical advisory committee-Wisconsin lags behind many states in the implementation of new value-added testing methodologies. Wisconsin is far behind in experiments regarding pay-for-performance for teachers.

[…]

The state Legislature should act now to abolish statutory provisions that disallow the use of results from state testing in teacher evaluation. At a time when many districts have begun to use testing programs that go beyond the WKCE-CR, it makes little sense to prohibit them from taking into account the information they obtain from these programs in their evaluations of teachers’ effectiveness.

Of course, NOW people will start to listen, since there’s a dollar sign attached to the recommendations.

As it turns out, State Senator Randy Hopper (R-Fond du Lac) and State Representative Brett Davis (R-Oregon) are drafting legislation to allow the use of student testing data when determining teacher pay.  They believe such a change could mean up to $612 million more in federal funds for Wisconsin.

Governor Doyle, on the other hand, believes the state already qualifies for the funds – despite being called “ridiculous” by the guy actually handing out the cash.

Here We Go Again on School Choice

It’s a the same song and dance we go through every year on School Choice, but with increased relevance given what Assembly Democrats did to the program last night.  In a motion passed behind closed doors, Democrats capped participation in the Milwaukee School Choice program at 19,500, which could throw hundreds of kids back into the Milwaukee Public School system in the next two years.

Of course, it is in the Democrats’ best interests to try to handicap a program that demonstrates that kids can actually be educated by non-teachers union members, and for half the cost to boot.  The teachers’ union continually tries to portray school choice as “costing” statewide school districts money, when, in fact, it actually saves state taxpayers.

Yesterday, State Representative Mike Huebsch released a memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau that demonstrates what would occur to non-MPS school districts if the School Choice program were reduced and Choice students were moved back into MPS – where they cost state taxpayers a lot more to educate, in a district failing miserably.  The memo tells us what anyone paying attention already knows: it costs less to educate a kid in choice than it does in MPS – so if you dump those kids back into MPS, it steals money from school districts around the state.

Take a look at Table 1 of the memo: If the choice program were disbanded altogether, MPS would get $203 million more in state aid, while districts around the state would lose $145 million, since it costs so much more to educate kids in MPS.  They would then jack up statewide property taxes to make up that difference, as the law allows them to do.

So if you don’t live in Milwaukee, and don’t care about School Choice because you think this is a parochial program just to help the kids in the city, you should reconsider – if only to save your own wallet.

And it can’t be said too many times – this has nothing to do with the “state budget” (as it doesn’t meaningfully affect state finances) and everything to do with strangling a program the teachers’ union opposes.

Look Out for Pterodactyls: Here Come the Democrats

I’ve posted about this before, but this most recent example just clarifies the blatant hypocrisy from both lawmakers and the teachers’ union.

Last week, Governor Doyle announced he would consider “cuts” to K-12 education as a way of making up the additional $1.6 billion deficit the state has recently identified.  (A “cut” simply means “not giving teachers as much money as they want,” even though total spending will continue to increase.)

Of course, when the state aid increase to school districts is scaled back, districts will simply raise property taxes to make up the difference.  Apparently, Democratic lawmakers are taking steps to cap these tax increases.  From last week’s Wispolitics Report:

Without changes to the revenue limits, the cuts to state aid that Doyle and lawmakers are considering could be backfilled with property taxes to make up most of the difference.  

But sources familiar with talks going on between the administration, legislators and school officials said revenue limits on school districts could be tightened to limit the impact on property taxpayers, or there could be a reduction in the per pupil adjustment.

Perhaps you remember such a scheme to hold down property taxes in the face of smaller increases in state aid.  Legislative Republicans proposed similar plans for eight years running – with Governor Jim Doyle vetoing all of the property tax freeze proposals that got to his desk.

In fact, in 2003, WEAC reacted to a proposal similar to the one being proposed by Democrats now by saying it would “return Wisconsin to the Ice Age.”  In the last budget, when Republicans proposed tightening revenue caps to allow an increase of $100 per pupil, Democratic Senator Bob Jauch said he had “a hard time understanding the Republican compulsion to take a meat axe to the children of this state.” Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair Russ Decker said the proposal was like “putting a gun to the head of public education and to students.”

It appears Doyle and legislative Democrats have been doing a little shopping at Menard’s, as they now appear willing to both wield a meat axe and aim a shotgun at our children.  The budget Jauch and Decker will end up voting for might end up being bloodier than the entire “Friday the 13th” movie franchise.

Perhaps the most vocal critic of a plan to cap property taxes was Governor Jim Doyle, who in his 2003 budget veto message, said:

The Republicans in the Legislature had a different approach. Instead of focusing on the problems with the state government’s budget – problems they played a key role in creating over the last decade – they tore a page out of the discredited playbook of the last Governor and pointed their fingers at the leaders of our local communities and schools. They tried to distract attention from their unfair cuts and sham budgeting by resorting to political gimmicks and slogans.

The arguments against their levy limits are numerous, but at the heart is a very basic Wisconsin value: We in Wisconsin have believed for more than 150 years that local communities know best the needs of their citizens.

[…]

That value – trusting our communities to make wise decisions – has served us well in education. It has given us schools that are the envy of the nation. Our children consistently perform at the top of national tests. They are our future. In order for Wisconsin to prosper in an increasingly competitive global economy, our children must have the very best education available to them. Our teachers work very hard to deliver that education, often under extremely difficult circumstances. Making children and teachers the victims of the state’s fiscal mess is irresponsible and inconsistent with Wisconsin’s values.

Is Doyle going to issue a press release condemning his own plan making “children an teachers the victims of the state’s fiscal mess?”  Or does he save that rhetoric for Republicans when they hold one or more of the houses of the Legislature?  Amazing how things change when one party runs everything and you don’t have a reliable bogeyman on which to blame everything.

I can’t wait to hear all the outrage from the teachers’ union when this new plan goes into effect.  More likely, we’ll hear praise heaped upon our lawmakers for “making the tough choices” and showing “fiscal discipline.”

Of course, these aid “cuts” wouldn’t be necessary if the state merely required government employees to kick in a little to their own retirement accounts.

A Very Special Message from WEAC

From the WEAC website, a special message from teachers’ union president Mary Bell:

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

At the end, Bell suggests a new way of fixing the budget deficit, saying we should “revisit the thresholds for targeted tax increases.”  I guess that’s one way of putting it.  If WEAC spent half as much time trying to cut costs as they do coming up with innovative ways to say “tax increase,” we’d be out of this budget jam in a week.

I also enjoyed the stylistic flair of having two cameras filming Bell during her speech, then alternating camera angles.  Here’s a cost-saving tip: sell one of the cameras, then give that money to a new teacher. 

See?  We’re already making progress.

Taking a Left Turn on Immigration

Apparently, sparks flew at the Joint Committee on Finance budget hearing on Wednesday when UW-Whitewater student Matthew Guttmann and State Representative Josh Zepnick sparred over a budget provision that grants in-state tuition to certain undocumented immigrants in Wisconsin.   According to Wispolitics.com, the following exchange occurred:

Zepnick who authored legislation to allow the tuition break, sarcastically commended him for being in college because it is a place to learn.

“You need to finish it,” Zepnick said, pointing out that children of illegal immigrants born in the United States are citizens and it is their parents who are having trouble getting documentation.

“What you said is not factually correct,” Zepnick said, adding that less than half a percent of students would get the benefit.

Ironically, it is the condescending Zepnick who seemed to have his facts wrong.  While he tried to buttress his argument by pointing out that children born in America to illegal parents are already citizens, that’s really an irrelevant point.  His bill – and the budget – specifically grant the benefit to a “citizen of another country” – meaning, someone who has immigrated here either with their parents or on their own.

(UPDATE:  You can watch the Zepnick-Guttmann exchange here – but you have to skip ahead to the 3 hour, 1 minute, and 54 second mark.)

It seems clear that Zepnick was a jackass to this kid.  But here’s the thing…

I actually…

Kind of…

(Covering head)…

Agree with Zepnick.

It’s true.  Pursuant to certain qualifications, I think this benefit is warranted.  In December of 2007, I wrote this in response to a WPRI poll that said 76% of Wisconsin residents opposed allowing illegal immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses, 86% opposed giving illegal immigrants in-state tuition, and 46% disapproved of “illegal immigrant children” attending public schools:

As you can see, there’s a big difference between what respondents thought about children and adult illegal immigrants. It appears that there’s a gap of people more willing to forgive illegal immigrant children than their parents. To them, it likely makes sense that children shouldn’t pay for the mistakes their parents make.

Yet these elementary school children will grow up and go to college. And many of them will be the same kids that the public feels strongly should not get in-state tuition. Presumably, that would mean they would have to pay out of state tuition or be denied entry into a state school altogether. In other words, their education would likely end at a high school degree.

In fact, elementary school students receive a much larger public subsidy than University of Wisconsin students. If the public was concerned about tax money being used to subsidize illegal immigrants, elementary school per-pupil spending should logically be the more difficult subsidy to stomach, considering per-pupil aid is so much greater.

Of course, the difficult question of why illegal immigrant children should be allowed to attend public elementary and high schools, but not colleges, is left up to the people who support the former but not the latter. It appears that 46% of people oppose any and all concession to illegal immigrants, not matter what the age – and another 10% side with the illegal immigrants on all issues. (I am assuming, of course, that there aren’t a lot of people who oppose elementary school subsidies but support taxpayer aid for college.) It would be interesting to listen to the rationale of the people in the middle – who may support one, but not the other – and why.

Most likely, respondents probably viewed illegal immigrants trying to attend the UW as trying to mooch off the system after they crossed the border. It’s unlikely that they understood that many of these kids are actually graduating from Wisconsin public schools.

I understand that people don’t want illegal immigrants to just be showing up and gaming the system, which is why I suggested mandating that the student had to be in a Wisconsin high school for four years to be eligible (the budget last session required one year of residency.)  It appears that this time around, in order to make the bill more palatable, the residency requirement was upped to three years.  It also requires that the student will have to at least file an application for U.S. residency.

So, to be clear – these kids are already going to the same high schools as our kids (for at least three years of high school).  They have the same teachers.  They play on the same sports teams.  They take the same tests, and get the same high school degree.  They are indistinct from any other high school students.  By the time an undocumented child makes it from first grade to graduating high school, taxpayers have already sunk over $100,000 into that child’s education, whether they realize it or not. To pull the plug on those children because of the actions of their parents would be unfair, and would nullify the investment taxpayers have already made in the child.

We should have strict immigration policies that keep people from entering our country illegally.  But people who think that the federal government is just going to start rounding up law-abiding undocumented families and deporting them anytime soon are living in a dream world.  (Criminals, on the other hand should be banished immediately.)

So while they’re here, our state would be better off giving these kids the chance to make our state better, rather than sentencing them to a second class existence.  It’s not their fault.

(Complaints can be sent to Representative Josh Zepnick.)

The Picture is Getting Clearer

We’ve made the case numerous times on this blog that Governor Doyle’s proposed budget uses too much one-time money to balance the state budget.  Just yesterday, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated the structural deficit for 2011-13 at $1.5 billion – and keep in mind, that’s with $3 billion in new ongoing taxes added to the rolls.

It seems that some local government officials are starting to pick up on the house of cards Doyle has built.  In Madison ( of all places), a school board member has written a criticism of Doyle’s use of one-time money, understanding the peril which awaits school budgets in the future:

One such shell game, according to Christian Schneider, conservative blogger and guest speaker at the WASB Legislative Issues conference, is for Doyle and the Legislature to continue to pull billions out of one budget and plug other budget holes.

“This trap is very alluring,” Schneider says, “especially if the use of non-routine revenues is implemented through a series of complex transfers that are not easy for the general public to understand. In the short term, this allows policymakers to avoid spending cuts. But in the long term, the practice can’t be sustained.”

It’s also bad governance.

[…]

Doyle recently urged school districts to remain under the revenue caps as they spend federal dollars. He said, “If they don’t, they’ll face big budget holes in future years and possibly anger homeowners if property taxes go up too much.”

Doyle should take his own advice. A budget dependent on one-time federal money for education and transfers to plug holes in budget gaps is shortsighted at best.

Until state and local leaders, along with the public, advance the conversation on how we fund schools and at the same time achieve educational excellence, we will continue to play the fools for the Bard. Let’s hope it doesn’t end in tragedy.

Of course, quoting me may be the kiss of death in Madison – but at least it shows fiscal responsibility can be an issue shared by both parties.

WEAC’s “Evolving” Standards

The mood was sour at the WEAC offices in August of 2001. Republican Governor Scott McCallum had signed a budget that only increased school funding by $472 million over the biennium. These new funds, approved by McCallum while the Governor was wrestling with a budget deficit, represented increases of 3.1% and 4.2% in school aids over the 2001-03 biennium.

In a press release following the bill signing, the teachers’ union sneered at McCallum’s paltry effort, calling it a “status quo” budget. At no point in the release did they mention the half a billion in new funds they received – instead, they excoriated McCallum for vetoing a .78% increase in the property tax caps and for vetoing relaxation of the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) law, which caps teacher salaries. They derided the Republican governor for not increasing aid enough for special education, saying the “lack” of special education funds meant “school districts will be forced to pit special education against other programs, resulting in decisions that hurt all students.” To the extent they mention the increased aids at all, they dismiss them as merely “part of a continuing effort” to hold down property taxes.

Nearly eight years later, Democratic Governor Jim Doyle stood at the podium in front of the Legislature, which was now controlled fully by members of his own party. Faced with a budget deficit of $5.9 billion (much of it his own doing) Doyle announced his intention to increase school aids by $426 million over the biennium.  Even public school children in Wisconsin will recognize this as $46 million less than the increase authorized by McCallum in 2001.

Doyle’s budget also included a funding shell game that imperiled school aids in the future. Doyle cut over $500 million in general funds out of school aids and plugged in an equal amount in federal “stimulus” funds to cover the aids – federal funds which may very well not be available in the next budget. On top of that, he funds virtually the entire school aid increase with one-time federal money.  When 2011 rolls around, school aids could be over $1 billion in the hole and fighting tooth and nail with other state programs for funding.

Undoubtedly, the small funding increase, coupled with the risky way funds are shifted around to patch up holes, would cause the thoughtful folks at WEAC to have some serious concerns regarding Doyle’s budget.

Surprise!  The day after his budget address, WEAC wasted no time in praising the proposed Doyle school funding plan, gushing that it “stays true to Wisconsin’s priorities and values.”

WEAC’s President Mary Bell’s reaction to the budget was grounds for Doyle to file a restraining order against her.  “The governor’s budget proposal recognizes that we must all make sacrifices in light of Wisconsin’s challenging economic conditions, but that there is no greater promise than the one we make to educate our children for the future. Investing in them reaps dividends for generations to come,” said  Bell, presumably reaching for a cold towel.

In the real world, such a naked double standard might cause one some embarrassment. But this is politics, where elected officials can steal from taxpayers and drive the state into crippling debt with impunity. Interest groups know that as long as they back the right horse, they only have to be as consistent as their most recent press release.  And WEAC has taken full advantage of the lack of institutional memory in the Capitol building.

Take, for example, some of Jim Doyle’s past budgets with regard to school finance. In 2003, facing a budget deficit (you may be sensing a theme here), Doyle proposed eliminating the two-thirds school funding requirement and granting an increase of $26 million in general funds (.01% and .5%) between 2003 and 2005. As expected, WEAC gave Doyle a pass, calling the budget situation “worse than grim,” conceding there would be “pain on the way to recovery.”

Republicans, who had gained control of both houses the previous fall, believed that with such a paltry state aid increase, school districts would simply pass the cost on to taxpayers. So the GOP shrewdly increased school funding by $88 million over what Doyle had proposed, along with a commensurate cap on local property taxes that could be loosened via referendum.

At this point, the teachers’ union lost its mind. WEAC President Stan Johnson, the clown prince of hyperbole, declared the Republican version of the budget would “return Wisconsin to the Ice Age” – as if children would be forced to ride mastodons to school. When Democrats propose increased spending, it’s because “every kid deserves a great school.” When Republicans increase spending, you’ll have a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing you to the mall.

Of course, WEAC contended that the tightened property tax caps wouldn’t give them as much money as they wanted – so they called it a “cut,” despite the fact that funding would have gone up by $120 and $100 per pupil in 2003 and 2004, respectively. In government, not getting as much as you want is considered a cut… unless Jim Doyle does it.

Consider Doyle’s new budget – the one that proposes the dangerously out of balance $426 million aid increase. In their departmental request, the Department of Public Instruction made the pitch for a $566 million increase. Doyle’s budget came up $140 million short. Had Scott McCallum done so, WEAC would be acting like he just ripped the lunch box out of the hand of every little curly-haired schoolgirl in Wisconsin.  When Doyle does it, it’s one of our “priorities and values.”

Naturally, nothing is going to keep this rhetorical double standard from cropping up every two years. In the last budget, when Republicans proposed tightening revenue caps to allow an increase of $100 per pupil, Democratic Senator Bob Jauch said he had “a hard time understanding the Republican compulsion to take a meat axe to the children of this state.” Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair Russ Decker said the proposal was like “putting a gun to the head of public education and to students.”

Below is a chart of total proposed per-pupil spending in 2007-08 under the Doyle plan and under the Republican Joint Finance motion:

It’s good to see Senators take a rhetorical cue from WEAC. As long as they’re on the teachers’ union payroll, it makes perfect sense that they’d be reading from the same employee manual.

Single Sex Classrooms: What’s Old Is New Again

The Wisconsin State Journal reports Sunday on Marshall Middle School in Janesville, which has taken a portion of their classes and separated the students out by sex.  According to the article, Marshall is one of six public schools in Wisconsin that have begun to sort students by gender.

While same-sex classes aren’t necessarily a new idea (in the old days, “same sex” education meant “girls don’t get to learn to read”), this would indicate that more and more schools are actually getting serious about their students’ education.  While same sex education might not be a panacea (studies on the efficacy of such programs in Wisconsin haven’t been completed), enough anecdotal evidence exists to make the program worth continuing.  From the article:

Jennifer Williams is one of the eighth-grade teachers whose interest in single-gender classes sparked the experiment at Marshall. She ‘s pleased by the changes she sees in classes and said bluntly, “I wouldn ‘t go back to coed. ”

William ‘s (sic) last-period science class is 28 girls who were also not shy about offering their take on being on the single-gender team. The majority of their comments were positive, especially when it came to academics.

“If you ‘re in a boys and girls class if you want to say an answer, they might make fun of you, ” said Evita Deupree.

“I think it ‘s easier to work because you aren ‘t distracted, ” added Chelsie Hardenstine. “I pay more attention than I did last year. “

Naturally, among the boys, opinions are mixed:

“They ‘ll make fun of me for being in here or call it the gay team, ‘ ” said Tyler Kraus. But he liked that class “is more laid back, you can express yourself ” and guessed it ‘s “probably helped my grades a little. ” Vaughn Garza agreed that “it is more academic because when you have girls around you tend to show off. ” But Thomas Murphy preferred a co-ed class, saying it hadn ‘t helped him: “I like the other way better.”

Somewhere, noted “girl enthusiast” Thomas Murphy’s parents are cringing.  Note to the Murphys – it’s time to have “the talk” about where babies come from with little Thomas.

Of course, single sex classes are opposed by the ACLU, who view such arrangements as tantamount to “separate but equal” segregation-era classrooms.  From an AP article in 2007:

“Too many schools feel they can carry out a social experiment with students’ education with really the flimsiest of theories,” said Emily Martin, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.

Single-sex schools are an “illusionary silver bullet,” said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women. They distract from real problems and do not offer proven solutions such as lower class sizes and sufficient funding, she said.

In November of 2006, the U.S. Department of Education made a change to allow such classes to exist:

Previously, single-sex classes had been allowed in only limited cases, such as gym classes and sex education classes. But the new rules allow same-sex education any time schools think it will improve achievement, expand the diversity of courses or meet students’ individual needs.  Enrollment must be voluntary and any children excluded from the class must get a “substantially equal” coed class in the same subject, if not a separate single-sex class.

Furthermore, in 2005, State Representative Scott Jensen introduced a bill allowing single-sex public and charter schools in Wisconsin.  The bill was signed into law by Governor Doyle in April of 2006.

As a result, look for more public schools in Wisconsin to make the move toward single gender classrooms – something private school parents have know benefited their children for decades.

Connecting the Dots on Immigration

Yesterday, we here at WPRI released the results of a poll that showed strong public opposition to various state benefits for illegal immigrants.  According to the poll, 76% of Wisconsin residents oppose allowing illegal immigrants to apply for drivers\’ licenses, 86% oppose giving illegal immigrants in-state tuition, and 46% disapprove of \”illegal immigrant children\” attending public schools.

It\’s interesting to see such stringent opposition to illegal immigrant benefits.  What\’s more interesting, however, is examining how the education questions relate to one another – there are connections that should be examined beyond just looking at the numbers.

As you can see, there\’s a big difference between what respondents thought about children and adult illegal immigrants.  It appears that there\’s a gap of people more willing to forgive illegal immigrant children than their parents.  To them, it likely makes sense that children shouldn\’t pay for the mistakes their parents make.

Yet these elementary school children will grow up and go to college.  And many of them will be the same kids that the public feels strongly should not get in-state tuition.  Presumably, that would mean they would have to pay out of state tuition or be denied entry into a state school altogether.  In other words, their education would likely end at a high school degree.

In fact, elementary school students receive a much larger public subsidy than University of Wisconsin students.  If the public was concerned about tax money being used to subsidize illegal immigrants, elementary school per-pupil spending should logically be the more difficult subsidy to stomach, considering per-pupil aid is so much greater.

Of course, the difficult question of why illegal immigrant children should be allowed to attend public elementary and high schools, but not colleges, is left up to the people who support the former but not the latter.  It appears that 46% of people oppose any and all concession to illegal immigrants, not matter what the age – and another 10% side with the illegal immigrants on all issues.  (I am assuming, of course, that there aren\’t a lot of people who oppose elementary school subsidies but support taxpayer aid for college.)  It would be interesting to listen to the rationale of the people in the middle – who may support one, but not the other – and why.

Most likely, respondents probably viewed illegal immigrants trying to attend the UW as trying to mooch off the system after they crossed the border.  It\’s unlikely that they understood that many of these kids are actually graduating from Wisconsin public schools.  Of course, this is the same rationale Governor Jim Doyle has used in pushing for his plan to give illegal immigrants the ability to pay in-state tuition.

It would seem, then, that to make his plan more viable, Doyle could implement a provision that requires an illegal immigrant spend a more substantial amount of time in a Wisconsin public school before being eligible for in-state tuition (his plan as introduced in the 2007-09 budget had a one-year residency requirement).  If a kid were required to spend four years in a public school, the public might feel a little different about their tuition eligibility – as they would be assured the student isn\’t just taking advantage of the system.

Of course, even if such a concession were made, 46% of the public appears to be against any type of compromise.  So it would still be a large mountain to climb.  But it may be enough to begin to convince the gap of people who believe there\’s a benefit to educating the children of illegals at some level.

Do We Need More “Public” Interest Legislation?

Often times, you hear legislation derided as being a “special interest” bill.  Implied in that designation is the notion that the public is left out of writing new laws, with only high-priced lobbyists having access to legislators.  Recent news stories about “the public” make factcat special interests seem a lot more sympathetic.

According a recent Scripps Howard/Ohio University national poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the U.S. Government ignored specific warnings about 9/11.  (A 2006 poll by the same researchers found that 36 percent of Americans believe federal government officials “either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action” because they wanted “to go to war in the Middle East.”) Furthermore, 42% Americans think the government knew about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in advance, and 37% of Americans believe the government knows that UFOs are real.  They must have polled the entire Jetson family.

More concerning are the results of the poll dealing with economics.  According to the poll, eight out of 10 Americans suspect oil companies are conspiring to keep fuel prices high and 50 percent said a conspiracy is “very likely.” Only 14 percent felt it was unlikely.

So companies trying to charge as much as they can as long as people still buy their product is a “conspiracy?”  If so, then oil companies are a “conspiracy” in the same way that old people selling lawn elves on eBay are.  Maybe we should investigate them – how dare they try to get the best price for their product!

This poll was followed by news of a brawl in a Waukesha K-Mart , where people applying for a $4,000 line of credit thought they were getting “free money.”  Apparently not knowing what “credit” is, the store was flooded with applicants thinking they were getting free cash – causing a fight that led to arrests and hospitalization for a store employee.  (Do yourself a favor and watch the video clips attached to the story linked above – one credit applicant says she was caught in a “trampede.”)

However, before we criticize the people who though credit was free money, the whole K-Mart debacle isn’t all that different from the way Wisconsin state government has treated debt.  The Governor and Legislature have increasingly been using the state’s credit card to fund ongoing state operations – the equivalent of taking out a second mortgage to throw a pizza party.  So, in theory, K-Mart shoppers may be more fiscally conservative than state government.  They are shopping at K-Mart, after all.  The only difference is that when the state lines up for “free money,” it doesn’t result in a floor covered in hair and earrings.

Whether it’s voters or elected officials, there’s plenty of education about economics that has to occur. In the case of voters, these are the people that are asked to vote in referendums to determine how much debt school districts should incur to build a new school. Maybe school districts should just go to K-Mart: it is free money, after all.

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Further evidence that even elected officials often don’t get it can be found in this article about the dispute between cable companies and the NFL Network.  The two entities have yet to reach agreement on carrying the network, which is leaving many Packer fans in the dark for the important Dallas game on Thursday night.  When asked for comment, Governor Doyle’s spokesman, Matt Canter, said “Both the cable companies and the NFL are making ridiculous profits, and this is nothing more than extortion from Packers fans.”

There is nothing Doyle’s spokespeople won’t blame on “ridiculous profits,” whether it’s oil companies, hospitals, drug companies, or cable companies.  Perhaps Canter missed this article from just last week that shows cable companies are hemorrhaging customers, in large part because of their impasse with sports-related stations.  If Matt Canter fell out of his bed, it’s likely he’d blame it on the “ridiculous profits” of mattress companies. 

Any time government gets to decide what an appropriate profit margin is, it spells big trouble for business and jobs.  Meanwhile, state government doesn’t seem the least bit bashful about cashing in on “ridiculous profits” when revenue increases between 7% and 10% – a common occurence in the 1990s.  That money is coming out of the same pockets as people who subscribe to cable television service – only paying the state is mandatory.

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