Memo to the Media on Open Enrollment: When We Unanimously Reject a Proposal, That Means We Don’t Support It

I know I should stay away from the open enrollment issue and hope that it fades away from the limelight for awhile. It’s a challenging issue for the school district – it highlights the extent to which some families are dissatisfied with the education their children receive in our schools, and it prompts a number to be vocal in their criticisms. We should and do take seriously the criticisms that those transferring out of our schools have raised and we’ll work hard on addressing those concerns that prompt some of our families to seek other options. But I’d just as soon the public spotlight now take a turn toward some more positive dimensions of the educational opportunities our schools provide.

I do feel compelled to comment, though, on how poorly I think the district has been served by our local media in the recent coverage of the Board’s consideration of a resolution recommending that the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) consider changes in its policy regarding open enrollment.

Okay, okay, we brought it on ourselves. I get that. There was no pressing need for us to take this issue up, and it is unlikely that whatever action we take on the WASB policy issue will end up having any effect on anything. Still, for whatever reasons it occurred, I think our media have fostered a damaging perception of the Board’s approach to the open enrollment issue that is completely at odds with what we in fact did and what we meant.

Here’s my take on what happened. A number of districts are interested in potential changes to the state’s open enrollment law. Open enrollment has had a worse impact on the Green Bay school district, for example, than it has on Madison. We were asked to add our voice as a school board to those of other boards recommending changes to the WASB policy on open enrollment, which, if adopted, would affect WASB’s lobbying efforts and perhaps influence the legislature to act.

James Howard and I, as the Board’s legislative liaisons, brought forward to the Board three proposed changes for consideration. WASB policy currently states that, while the organization supports open enrollment, WASB recognizes the importance of “the option for districts to limit the number of students leaving the school district under the open enrollment program, if the school board believes that number is large enough to threaten the viability of the district.” The first proposed change essentially would substitute “financial stability” for “viability” in this statement.

The second proposed change would put WASB on record in support of a reduction in the cap on the number of students of any school district who open enroll in another district to 3% from the current 10%.

The third proposal asked WASB to support a fiscally neutral exchange of state dollars in open enrollment transfers. This is an issue that is of particular concern to Madison, because we lose about three times as much in state aid for each student who open enrolls out from the district than we receive on a per-student basis, and this is inequitable. The detrimental impact on school districts that receive more state aid per student than Madison is considerably less.

The State Journal ran a front page article by Gayle Worland on Monday about the open enrollment issue and highlighted the 3% cap proposal. This brought the issue to the community’s attention.

The Board considered the proposal at its meeting last Monday night. We had one public speaker address the issue, Don Severson. He encouraged the Board to oppose the WASB resolution putting a cap on open enrollment.

The Board discussed the issue. Individual members expressed concern about the 3% cap, suggesting that this wasn’t the way for us to deal with the open enrollment issue. I was one of those who spoke against the proposal. The Board voted unanimously to support the other two proposed changes to WASB policy, but not the 3% cap. This amounted to a unanimous rejection of the 3% limit.  (A video of the Board meeting can be found here.  The WASB discussion begins about 48 minutes in.)

From the Board’s perspective, the endorsement of the proposal regarding financial stability wasn’t seen as one that had much bearing on our district. But we’d like support from other districts on our push for a fiscally neutral exchange of state dollars, and so we were willing to support proposals important to other districts, like this one, as a way of building a coalition for fresh consideration of open enrollment issues by the WASB.

The “financial stability” proposal certainly wasn’t intended by us as a dagger to the heart of the open enrollment policy; I don’t suppose that it was ever the intent of the legislators who supported the open enrollment statute that the policy could render school districts financially unstable.

The State Journal never reported that the Board rejected the 3% cap proposal. It ran letters to the editor on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday that all seemed premised on the assumption that we had in fact supported such a cap. The Wednesday letter said in part, “[T]he Madison School District’s answer to its shortcomings is to build a Berlin wall, preventing students from leaving.” From the Thursday letter, “Unfortunately, instead of looking inward to address the problems and issues causing flight from Madison schools, the School Board would rather maintain the status quo and use the coercive force of government to prevent its customers from fleeing for what they think is a better value.” From Friday’s letter: “So the way you stem the tide of students wanting to leave the Madison School District is to change the rules so that not so many can leave? That makes perfect Madison School Board logic.” (The State Journal also ran a letter to the editor on Friday that was more supportive of the district.)

Don Severson, who holds himself out as an expert on School Board issues, talked about open enrollment on the Vicki McKenna radio show on Wednesday. However, instead of expressing support for the Board’s action in voting unanimously in precisely the way he had urged in his public statement to the Board, he instead joined heartily in Vicki McKenna’s excoriation of the Board for trying to put limits on open enrollment.

As far as I can tell (and I have listened to replays of the McKenna show twice to double check on this), Severson seemed to be deliberately misleading in his statements on the show about the Board’s actions. Rather than informing the show’s listeners that the Board had in fact rejected the 3% cap proposal, his statements implied just the opposite.

On Thursday, I sent Don Severson the following email:

Don –

I listened to your appearance on the Vicki McKenna show yesterday and was astonished that you never mentioned that at our meeting Monday night, the Board unanimously agreed with your public comments and voted to reject recommending a 3% cap on students eligible to leave the district through open enrollment. Instead, you certainly seemed to encourage the perception that the Board had acted in a manner precisely opposite to what we in fact did.

Am I missing something? If there is some reason for me not to conclude that you are completely untrustworthy on this stuff, I’d love to hear it.

I have received no response.

The State Journal still hasn’t printed word one about our voting against recommending a cap on open enrollment. On Sunday, the State Journal’s new columnist Chris Rickert took up the issue. He also didn’t mention what we in fact did at our Monday meeting. Instead, he framed the issue as if our support of the “fiscal stability” proposal revealed that the thrust of our action was trying to limit open enrollment. He accused the Board of endorsing a change to the state’s open enrollment policy that, for unexplained reasons, “could destroy it.” I suspect that what from my perspective would have been a more accurate accounting of what we did would have interfered with the narrative he found helpful for writing his column.

Perhaps I am being too thin-skinned about this. But it seems to me that a reasonable reader of the State Journal or a reasonable listener to the Vicki McKenna show (and I assume there are some) would be quite likely to believe today that the School Board is trying to place a 3% cap on the number of students who can leave the district through open enrollment, when in fact the Board unanimously rejected taking just such an action.

Is it asking too much for our media to report accurately on School Board decisions that they deem newsworthy? And couldn’t they please restrict their criticisms to actions that we actually take?

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