A New Propaganda Front in the War on Public Schools

The war on public education in Wisconsin has many fronts. The conflict is most obvious in elections, as when the anti-public-school American Federation for Children spent $148,000 last year to rid the legislature of Wausau’s Representative Mandy Wright, a former teacher and prominent public school advocate. With the legislature safely in Republican hands, the war moved to a new front. Lobbyists for the anti-public-school groups have been working behind the scenes with friendly legislators and the governor’s office to craft legislation and budget bill provisions to advance their cause.

The war also requires propagandists. The anti-public-school warriors are no slouches in this department, either. Witness their efforts to seize upon the results of the legislatively-mandated “school reports cards” to label schools and entire school districts as “failing.” (This rhetorical volley is assisted by their efforts to resist requiring similar report cards for voucher schools.)

The propagandists have recently come up with an audacious new argument: data show – so they say – that public schools are incapable of boosting student achievement. Spending more money on public schools is a waste of tax dollars. Far better to invest those public dollars in voucher schools where there will be a payoff on the investment.

As the following section of this post explains, this emerging line of attack is evident in a recent Journal Sentinel column that attacks Wisconsin high school principals for having the gall to ask that public school educators have a voice in the formation of the state’s education policy. After pointing out the factual errors in this column, I trace the genesis of this line of attack and then explain how it is built on a fundamental logical fallacy. Continue reading

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Top Ten Reasons To Be Wary of the Republican Scheme to Stick Charter Schools in Madison

During the Joint Finance Committee’s recent legislative bludgeoning of the University of Wisconsin system, Committee members snuck into the omnibus UW motion a provision that creates a new entity in the UW System. The sole purpose of the entity is to authorize new independent charter schools to operate within the Madison school district (and, theoretically, in Milwaukee as well).

An article by Molly Beck in the State Journal reported on this development and included quotes from me and our superintendent Jen Cheatham that were sharply critical of the proposal.

Yesterday, Chris Rickert wrote a column in the State Journal that essentially called Jen Cheatham and me short-sighted and self-interested whiners, as interested in maintaining control over Madison public schools as in educational outcomes.

In a virtuoso flight of rhetorical fancy, Rickert analogized the proposed new UW bureaucracy tasked with jamming Madison with charter schools to U.S. Marshals sent to the segregated south to overcome racist recalcitrance during the Civil Rights movement.

It’s a new experience being compared to the likes of Bull Connor and George Wallace, but I suppose I can chalk it up to the pressure Rickert is under to produce four provocative columns a week. Continue reading

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Will the Budget Bill Render Unconstitutional the State’s School Finance System?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has held in both Kukor v. Grover, 148 Wis. 2d 469, 496, 436 N.W.2d 568 (1989) and Vincent v. Voight, 2000 WI 93, ¶3, 236 Wis. 2d 588, 614 N.W.2d 388, that Wisconsin public school students have a fundamental right to an equal opportunity for a sound basic education.

In Vincent, the court explained that this fundamental right entails both the opportunity for students to be proficient in mathematics, science, reading and writing, geography, and history, and for them to receive instruction in the arts and music, vocational training, social sciences, health, physical education and foreign language, “in accordance with their age and aptitude.”  The court held in Vincent that the state’s school finance system will pass constitutional muster only so long as the legislature provides sufficient resources so that school districts across the state can offer students the equal opportunity for a sound basic education that the Wisconsin Constitution requires

The proposed state budget will hold revenue limits constant for the next two years.  The only additional funding provided will be a bump in categorical aid in the second year of the biennium.  Other than this additional $100 per student categorical aid in 2016-17, school districts throughout the state will be unable to increase the amount of revenue they can raise and so, for practical purposes, the amount they can spend over the next two years.

Every school district’s expenses go up every year.  With revenue capped, the only route to a balanced budget entails cuts in the programs and activities that generate the expenses.

Will there be school districts whose budgets will be so pinched by the revenue limits imposed by the legislature that their district schools will no longer be able to provide the “instruction in the arts and music, vocational training, social sciences, health, physical education and foreign language” in accordance with the age and aptitude of the schools’ students that the Wisconsin Constitution requires?

Particularly for rural school districts with declining enrollment, the answer will almost certainly be yes.  Under Vincent, which is controlling Wisconsin precedent, this will violate the constitutional rights of the students in any such districts.  Under Vincent’s logic, this in turn would render the state’s school finance system unconstitutional.

Or so, at any rate, lower courts in Wisconsin will be obligated to hold if the issue is presented to them.  If the issue were to reach the supreme court, the likelihood that the current Wisconsin Supreme Court would honor stare decisis and follow its Vincent precedent is another matter entirely.

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The Unfortunate Trend Toward Opting Out of Standardized Tests

Multiple Choice: The normal schedule at your child’s school will be disrupted for several days while the school administers a standardized test to all students. You think the test is a pointless waste of time that could be better spent on classroom instruction. You listen with interest when another parent urges that you opt your child out of taking the standardized test. What is your best course of action if you want to support your child’s school

a.     Keep your child home from school during testing days.

b.     Opt your child out of taking the test and write a letter to the school’s principal explaining your action.

c.     Discuss the issue with your child and jointly decide on a course of action.

d.     Send your child to school to take the test.

Surprise! The correct answer is d. Read on to find out why.

This month public school students in Madison are for the first time taking the Badger Exam, the Common Core-aligned standardized test that has replaced the WKCE. But not all students. A relatively small but growing number of parents have opted their children out of taking the exam. It’s becoming a thing. While most of the opt-outers are just taking a pass on the Badger Exam, some of the more gung-ho parents are opting out of all of the standardized tests that Madison students take.

Opting out has been described as an act of civil disobedience to protest schools’ over-reliance on high-stakes standardized tests. The more enthusiastic opt-outers see the tests as a cash-cow for big corporate interests like Pearson, who are happy to drain the budgets of strapped school districts with bloated testing charges. The also contend that the tests deliberately judge students by unrealistically high standards as part of a scheme to label public schools as “failing” and so advance the interest of charter school operators, privatizers and other enemies of public education.

For opt-outers holding these views, there’s really no middle ground. The logic of their position compels that they reject the very notion of standardized tests and that they advocate for banishing the tests from our schools entirely. They may not be able to stop the tests on their own but they can stop their children from taking the tests. And so they do.

From my perspective as a School Board member in Madison, I have a different view. I think opting out of standardized tests is, generally speaking, a lousy idea. This puts me quite at odds with the engaged, pro-public schools families who are choosing the opt-out route. So I will try to explain my views. Continue reading

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A New Front in Walker’s War on Public Education: Privatizing Charter School Authorizers

A topic that has not yet garnered much attention in the slowly unfolding catalog of horrors that is Governor Walker’s budget bill is its set of proposals for charter schools. Of a piece with the budget bill’s meat-axe approach to the UW System, the charter school proposals are certainly bold, if by bold we mean untested, excessive, and irresponsible. The policies are also poised to inflict damage on public education to a degree that could prove devastating. All this, plus privatizing an exclusively governmental function – the charter school proposals have hit a bad public policy trifecta.

The budget bill’s charter school provisions amount to a dog’s breakfast mixed together from Wisconsin’s current system for non-school-district-authorized charter schools in Milwaukee and Racine (so called “2r” charter schools) and ALEC’s model legislation, which it calls the Charter School Growth with Quality Act.  Amazingly, the result is worse than even ALEC proposes. Continue reading

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The Accountability Bill: Republicans Embrace What They Otherwise Abhor

Assembly Republicans introduced their promised “school accountability” legislation  this week as the first bill of the new session. The lead sponsor of the measure is the new chair of the Assembly Education Committee, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt of Fond du Lac.

The bill’s animating principle seems to be that there are too many public schools and not enough independent charter schools. The bill addresses that by creating a new state bureaucracy, a 13-member “Academic Review Board.” This Board is authorized to overhaul the current state report card system such that every school will receive a grade from A to F. The grades will be based primarily on standardized test results and the Board will determine the grading scale. Three years of Ds or Fs and a school will go on four-year probation. When its probationary term is up, the Board can decide the school hasn’t shown enough improvement and must be closed, to be replaced by an independent charter school.

Last year 223 of the state’s public schools received the equivalent of a D or an F on their state report card – a little more than 10% of the schools receiving grades. This is one of the rare occasions when it is accurate to say that the Republicans’ proposal threatens to literally decimate our state’s public schools.

Are there poorly performing public schools in Wisconsin? Sure. But it is the responsibility of the local school district and school board to dig into the problems at those schools and figure out ways to make improvements.

It’s striking how dead set Rep. Theisfeldt and the other sponsors of this bill must be to privatize our schools. They’re so committed that they’re willing to abandon local responsibility and local control and instead march in lockstep behind a top-down, bureaucratic, stifling approach that in other contexts they’d be elbowing each other out of the way to be the first to attack. Continue reading

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The School District’s Annual Report Is More Significant Than You Think


annual report cover jpg

Anyone interested in what’s going on in our Madison schools should get a copy of the 2013-2014 Annual Report on the MMSD Strategic Framework and read it.  You can review the report on line, but that’s really not a substitute for holding the 14-page document in your hands. 

We can have all the feel-good and self-congratulatory exercises we want – and I have certainly participated in my share – but results matter. That’s why the annual report is so encouraging.

I am in my seventh year on the Madison School Board.  I started serving just as Art Rainwater was stepping down, and have been on the Board during Dan Nerad’s four years, Jane Belmore’s year as interim superintendent, and now Jen Cheatham’s one year plus.

During these years we’ve generally recognized that, in terms of academic achievement, we weren’t where we need to be as a school district.  We have always had a good number of high-achieving students and we have been able to point to and take some credit for their accomplishments. But we also have a very troubling achievement gap that has finally attracted the attention it deserves over the past few years. And over the past several years we just haven’t been able to move the needle much in terms of student learning. We’ve tried a lot of different strategies – too many strategies – but nothing has really clicked. During my time on the Board we have never had reason to celebrate clear signs of district-wide improvement.

Until now. Continue reading

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