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.

Adventures in Civics: Principals Write to their Legislators  

Last month, 35 principals of southern Wisconsin high schools signed a public letter to Governor Walker and the Wisconsin legislature. In respectful terms, the principals expressed three sets of concerns: about the reduced power of local school boards on curriculum, policy, funding, testing, school calendar and other issues; about the “competitive nature and business school model that schools now face,” which leads to a segregated system of “have” and “have not” schools; and about the underfunding of public schools since the introduction of revenue limits in 1992. Their ask was modest: “We respectfully request that teachers and school administrators be allowed a voice in important education decisions in Madison.”

Adventures in Bloviation: Esenberg Takes the Principals to School

In a column in the Journal Sentinel, Rick Esenberg, the president of the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty (WILL), ripped into the principals for claiming that their schools were underfunded and that the state was interfering with local control of schools.

According to Esenberg, spending on public schools has increased significantly since 1987 but student achievement and attainment have remained flat. In his words, “We spent a lot more money and we didn’t get any smarter.” His key assertion is that it is “preposterous” for the principals to claim that their schools are underfunded, since they “enjoyed a 50% real increase in funding while yielding no improvement in results.”

Esenberg concedes that local control over schools has diminished. But he rationalizes that “if the state is going to substantially increase its share of the bill for K-12 education, it is going to want to make sure that the money is spent properly.”

Adventures in Facts: Esenberg’s Errors

There is a larger point to be made here beyond the unbounded presumption of Esenberg, essentially a paid shill for anti-public education zealots, lecturing these 35 school principals on how much money they need to run their schools. But first it’s worth observing that Esenberg is wrong on just about everything.

Like everyone who has wrestled with school funding issues, the principals would recognize the nonsense in an assertion that meeting school budgets has become easier over the years. In the early 1990s, Governor Tommy Thompson and the state legislature adopted the “three-legged stool” set of school funding reforms. The three legs of the stool were the imposition of revenue limits, which are with us today; the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO), which was repealed in 2009; and the state’s promise to provide two-thirds of K-12 revenues, a pledge that lasted until the 2003-05 budget.

Under the QEO, school districts could avoid arbitration if they entered into collective bargaining agreements with their teachers that included a 3.8% total package increase in wages and benefits each year. The additional expenses generated by a QEO tended to exceed the permissible increase in school district spending under revenue caps. This meant that typically school districts were compelled to slash non-compensation related expenditures each year.

The QEO was repealed in 2009 but Scott Walker was elected in 2010. From that point, the screws were tightened on school budgets by revenue limits rather than by the QEO.

Revenue limits cap the amount that schools can spend on a per-pupil basis.   From 1995 through 2010 the annual permissible increase in per-pupil spending ranged from $200 to $275. From 2010-11 through 2016-17, the per-pupil revenue limits have actually gone down – the 5.5% cut in 2011 has not been offset by the total per-pupil increase of $200 over the past three years and the two years of the recently-adopted budget.

So, yes, school budgets keep getting tougher every year, at least for school districts that want to compensate their employees fairly, change curricula where appropriate, upgrade technology and maybe try a few new things that may boost student achievement.

Esenberg is also wrong when he asserts that the state has “substantially increase[ed] its share of the bill for K-12 education.” The state’s share has in fact dipped since the legislature jettisoned the two-thirds funding pledge twelve years ago. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the state’s share of the total amount of K-12 funding provided by the state and local property taxes has decreased from 65.3% in 2005 to 62.3% in 2014.

Though it’s not a factual matter, it’s also odd that Esenberg would be so cavalier about increasing state mandates impinging on the management of school districts by their locally-elected school boards. As I never tire of pointing out, the platform of the Republican Party of Wisconsin states: “We support local control of education and keeping control of schools in the hands of elected, local school boards.” Even as the Republican-controlled legislature tramples this notion in practice, the rhetoric of their elected leaders still reflexively if hypocritically genuflects before the principle of local control.

Adventures in Polemics: A Dollar Spent, a Dollar Wasted

But here’s what’s more significant than Esenberg’s factual errors: his column advances an important new anti-public school line of attack that has recently been gaining momentum among the enemies of public schools like Esenberg and his cronies at WILL

For a long time the proponents of school vouchers have focused their arguments at the individual level – parents should have the right to choose what school’s best for their children. (And of course they can and always could. But that doesn’t mean the government should pay for their choices. Parents should also be able to choose where to go on vacation with their kids. But that doesn’t mean the state should be sending them 3-Day Hopper Passes if they choose Disney World rather than Governor Dodge State Park.)

Now, the voucher propagandists are starting to attack at the systems level. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that public schools are unsalvageable. We keep spending more money on public schools but don’t see any improvement for the investment. We’re better off shifting away from public schools and instead investing in voucher schools, where we’ll get a much better return on our tax dollars.

This line of argument was developed in a recent report issued by WILL called “Diminishing Returns in K-12 Education.” The report discusses education spending and the performance of Wisconsin and U.S. students compared to students in other countries. It also cheerleads for voucher schools, including sidebar articles on how great school choice has been for a handful of students.

The heart of the report is a statistical analysis of increases in spending by Wisconsin school districts from 2001 to 2013 and changes in performance on standardized tests and graduation rates over the same period. The study finds that no systematic relationship exists between additional spending and student outcomes.   The conclusion the authors draw is that Wisconsin has likely “hit a wall” where an additional dollar in education spending will not bring a dollar’s worth of improved student performance.  They go on to argue that “spending more on the ‘one-size-fits-all’ government schools will not lead to better student outcomes.”  (Pro tip: when an advocate calls public schools “’one-size-fits-all’ government schools” you have a pretty good idea of where the argument is heading.)

Adventures in Logic: Not Each of These Expenditures Is Like the Other

But the authors’ conclusion is based on a logical fallacy. It doesn’t follow from the evidence they present.  Just because we can’t demonstrate that school districts that increase their total spending see a commensurate increase in student achievement doesn’t mean that spending that is specifically targeted to increase student achievement will be wasted.

Consider an example.  Suppose someone studies whether there is a correlation between year-to-year increases in the assessed value of a home and year-to-year increases in the home’s energy efficiency.  Odds are there won’t be much of a correlation.  Many expenditures on homes are not driven by a desire to weatherize the structure or otherwise save on electric and gas bills.  But this doesn’t mean that an additional expenditure specifically intended to increase the energy efficiency of a particular home would be wasted.

Similarly, the expenditures that school districts incur can have a wide variety of purposes.  Some will be targeted at the specific type of student achievement that is measured by whatever standardized test is available but most will not.  School districts might purchase a kiln for a pottery class, or blacktop a parking lot or pay increased health insurance costs. None of these is likely to translate into higher standardized test scores in following years.

The analysis the WILL authors present does not distinguish among expenditures. But only a subset of school district expenditures is directed toward specific hoped-for increases in student achievement and only a subset of those will be effective. A school district that showed a relatively large increase in total spending over the studied period may have devoted a relatively small percentage of that increase to student achievement strategies. Consequently, even if it were demonstrated beyond question that expenditures targeting specific student achievement are invariably effective, we still would not be able to conclude that that a relatively large increase in a school district’s total spending would be correlated with a similarly large increase in student achievement.

Some strategies for improving student achievement cost money and some do not. Some strategies are effective and some are not. It is generally beneficial to increase spending on strategies that work and generally wasteful to increase spending on strategies that don’t work. Any of the 35 principals who signed the letter could tell you that. The WILL authors could spin out a hundred more regression analyses but through it all that straightforward conclusion would remain unassailable.

It is a logical fallacy to observe increases in total spending unaccompanied by commensurate increases in student achievement and conclude from this any and all spending intended to boost student achievement will invariably be ineffective. It is a still more grievous fallacy to imply that public schools are hopeless tax-dollar sinkholes and that state taxpayers should fund alternatives like voucher schools instead.

But that’s today’s line of attack favored by the enemies of our public schools. It’s not intended to withstand critical analysis or to ring true to the 35 principals who signed the letter. It’s intended to be deployed as a weapon in the war to place a voucher in every backpack.



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6 Responses to A New Propaganda Front in the War on Public Schools

  1. Sarah Lord says:

    First, we have to remember that Milton Friedman argued to ALEC in 2006: “Of course, the ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it.” Included in a great article at http://www.prwatch.org/news/2015/02/12730/segregation-school-vouchers#sthash.XwgRIoq4.dpuf.
    So, this is all too predictable…

    Secondly, I would argue that money doesn’t have to be “directly aimed at increasing student achievement” to be worth spending, as I’m sure you know. Money should be spent to make school buildings livable, to ensure teachers are adequately paid and supported so that they feel valued enough to stay in the district and in the profession, to make sure that students’ complex physical and emotional needs are being met, etc… All of these cost school districts money and are worth spending though they may have very weak correlations with student test scores. And, we have to constantly keep in mind that tests measure a very small subset of the learning that, in my opinion, we ought to value in a complex, democratic, multicultural society. Therefore, we must spend money that increases LEARNING, but that may not be reflected directly in test scores.

    Thanks – as always – for your thoughtful and well-researched post.

    • Thanks, Sarah, and thanks for expanding on the important point that very worthwhile investments in our schools need not be correlated with, or even related to, academic achievement in the areas measured by standardized tests.

  2. Mad4Madison says:

    Ed –

    As always, I do thank you for providing your views and the reasoning behind them. It gives others a real chance to not only know where you stand, but more importantly the “why” behind where you stand.

    Vouchers is certainly an energetic topic. For some, they view it as an assault on the public school system. For others, they view it as a mechanism to provide a “better” education. Or some see it as a waste of tax payer money, while others see it as a mechanism to have the public pay for a private education. I guess it all depends on the spin, no?

    My personal view is not displayed through my thoughts or posts, but rather my actions. Both of my children are products of MMSD (one graduated last year and one is still in high school). My wife and I made a decision to keep them in MMSD. We are lucky and blessed in that we did have a choice – we could have afforded to send them into the private school environment. But we chose not to do that for a variety of reasons. So I am not anti-public schools, nor am I anti-MMSD at all.

    That being said, I know that other families do not have that same option. For them, another school and another environment may indeed be better for them. And these same families simply cannot afford the change in schools. So they are stuck. In my view, these are the very people that are at the core of the voucher program. And I have a difficult time thinking that we should put up barriers or make it difficult for these families to make a change.

    You use the analogy of a vacation. I get it, but it is overly simplified. If my kids are not growing or feel that Gov. Dodge State Park is a welcoming environment, then what benefit is it to me or my kids to go there? If a kid does not feel welcome or comfortable or safe at school, they will not perform. Period. If they are not challenged, they will not perform. I am guessing that you are much more aware of the hurdles that some families face in obtaining a quality education that I am, so I need not use additional examples. So in that case, yes – they should be able to choose a different “vacation” than what you or I think is appropriate.

    The school funding issue has been around for years. It is not a voucher created problem, it is not a union created problem and it is not a problem caused by the current administration. Republicans and Democrats all could have changed this in the past. And they did not. So I would separate that out from the discussion.

    What is a problem is that the current and previous MMSD administrations have all been very open and very against any change in formulas that would result in a change in the state’s allocation. This includes MMSD’s previous attempts to limit or bar students from using the Intra-District Transfer mechanism to change districts. Why? Because the funding goes with the student and the administration is against that.

    You use an example of funding for achievement improvement. You state some programs work and others do not. The problem is that MMSD will not cut or eliminate funding for the programs that do not work. The reason is a political one and I am also certain you have heard it too. No administrator or educator wants to cut funding to programs. They would rather spend the money on a less than effective or utterly non-effective program than to eliminate it.

    As for a voice, that is a misconception of the highest nature. We all do have a voice right now. We can elect local officials. We can elect state-wide officials. We can attend MMSD Board Meetings. We can write our elected officials. We do have a voice. What is really being asked is for their voice to be the same as a decision. Big difference there. I could (and probably would) argue that these same voices have been center to getting us to where we are right now with the achievement gap.

    Finally, paid shills exist all over this topic. And so do “cronies”. I effectively see no difference between MTI and WILL. Others can and probably do think differently. But those organizations exist to represent the views of members or a specific viewpoint. Here is one for you: how would you have voted on Madison Prep if MTI had not objected and allowed non-MTI educators to be hired and work at Madison Prep?

    Here is one view that I would love to hear both sides argue over:

    What if vouchers were means tested in some way as to eliminate the possibility that a wealthy family could ride the tax payers to pay for little Suzy or Joey to go to a private school? That would target a subset of the population while ensuring that another subset was actually given a legitimate choice.

    • Mad4Madison says:

      Edit: Inter-District / Open Enrollment – not Intra.

    • Mad –

      Thanks for your response. You raise a number of points that I will try to respond to. At the outset, I should emphasize that I look at things from a Madison-centric perspective, so my take on things may not be equally applicable to other parts of the state.

      I certainly recognize that there are public schools that may be poor fits for some students, for a number of reasons. When this is the case, students can transfer to other public schools within the district. They can also open enroll into public schools in neighboring districts. Transportation can be a challenge, but it’s the same for private schools.

      As I have written before, I think there is substantial benefit in the public school idea that all students from a community learn together in the same classrooms. We are fortunate in Madison to have genuinely diverse public schools. Wholly apart from the book learning, students in our schools can learn from, with, and about kids who are different from them and develop skills for getting along with everyone. This broadens everyone’s perspectives and horizons, makes them more open to new experiences, and enhances their cultural competency. I believe that this is a social good.

      I think it is bad public policy to sacrifice the broad social benefits of public schools by providing every student with a voucher and thereby atomizing the system of K-12 education. This reinforces the unfortunate trend toward self-selected homogeneity in many social spheres and is likely to limit students’ and parents’ exposure to ideas and viewpoints they may not agree with. It also will inevitably disadvantage students who aren’t fortunate enough to have parents who can advocate for them effectively and particularly students who have special needs that are expensive to serve. (Voucher advocates often speak as if our schools should be highly attuned to the interests and concerns of parents. I think the focus should be instead on the needs of students, perhaps especially those students without supportive parents.)

      From what I have seen, the evidence seems to show that parents with choices tend to select schools on the basis of criteria other than academic quality. So we can’t count on the competition that a full voucher system would engender to prod schools into stepping up the level of teaching they offer or educational challenge they provide.

      As to Madison Prep, I supported the idea of Madison Prep and worked hard to find a way to get to yes on the Board. I thought we needed to delay opening the school for a year because otherwise approving the proposal would have violated our collective bargaining agreement and opened us up to a breach of contract claim. At the time, there was no way for MTI to waive the CBA provisions in question because that would have amended the agreement and hence triggered the applicability of Act 10.

      As to the vacation analogy, I continue to think that the availability of vouchers is striking. This seems to be the one area where folks who are dissatisfied with a particular government service can get the government to pay the cost of their using a private alternative instead. Imagining how this approach would work in other contexts is meant to illustrate the point.

      I agree that the school funding issue is not a voucher-created problem. It is problem that is exacerbated by vouchers. Funding two school systems is less efficient and more expensive than funding one.

      I don’t agree with you that MMSD will mindlessly continue to use programs whether they work or not. That’s certainly not my experience. There are funding cuts to less-than-effective programs all the time. There can be lots of discussion about what is ineffective and what isn’t, however.

      I don’t agree that there’s an equivalency between MTI and WILL. MTI represents the interests of teachers and staff in our school district. WILL is one of several anti-public-school advocacy organizations that are trying to affect Wisconsin laws and policy. WILL is generously funded by the Bradley Foundation and others and appears to work closely with a network of ideologically-compatible entities to further a right-wing agenda.

      WILL’s donors provide them with the resources to undertake the study that I was criticizing. I can try to poke holes in the study as a matter of logic, but I don’t have the skills or the time to analyze their regression analyses or run some of my own. And that’s a problem – there aren’t comparably well-funded organizations in Wisconsin today that are advocating for public schools.

      Finally, vouchers are currently means-tested, though voucher advocates would like to do away with that feature of the program. Voucher students must have a family income below 185% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, this is a yearly income of $44,828.

  3. Mad4Madison says:

    Ed –

    Thanks for the reply. I did want to comment on the following:

    “As I have written before, I think there is substantial benefit in the public school idea that all students from a community learn together in the same classrooms. We are fortunate in Madison to have genuinely diverse public schools. Wholly apart from the book learning, students in our schools can learn from, with, and about kids who are different from them and develop skills for getting along with everyone. This broadens everyone’s perspectives and horizons, makes them more open to new experiences, and enhances their cultural competency. I believe that this is a social good.”

    You stated what I have not been able to state. This sums up my view and those of my wife perfectly. It is THE reason that my children went through MMSD. Now, it has been spotty and we have had to augment the academic side with private tutors, but the real education was the diversity in the classroom, diversity in thought and diversity in friends.

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