Recall fever and the other illnesses infecting politics this year – including a strange virus prompting some senators to flee the state – have distracted the state’s lawmakers from confronting the problems they were sent to Madison to solve.
WPRI polling shows the public agrees with the Journal Sentinel editorial page. 52% of respondents to our October survey believe recalls are a negative development in Wisconsin politics (42% call it a positive).
Count me among the 52%. The continued use of recalls serves only to paralyze Wisconsin government by putting elected officials in perpetual campaign mode. Recalling politicians for doing their jobs will logically lead them to protect their position by making as few decisions and taking as few votes as possible.
Progressive-era journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote that “The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.” It is a quote to keep in mind the next time the Wisconsin legislature fails to address a pressing issue.
NAEP results, unlike student scores on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE), can be compared to students across the country and is the best barometer for how Wisconsin pupils on aggregate are doing compared to their peers. While the continued poor job we do educating minority pupils rightfully steals the headlines, there is also reason to be concerned with how Wisconsin students perform overall.
The chart below shows that the percentage change (not percentage point change) in the share of Wisconsin 8th graders scoring proficient or above in math and reading trails the percentage increase in statewide per-pupil cost. In other words, the value we get out of our education system is out-of-whack with the investment we put in.
The next two graphs are perhaps more troubling. They track NAEP scores in 8th grade math and reading in Wisconsin and Minnesota. While Wisconsin has improved in recent years, we are not closing the gap with our neighbor to the west. This is concerning because Wisconsin graduates will be competing with students in neighboring states for college admission and eventually jobs.
The NAEP is useful in that it establishes the need for educational improvement in a way the WKCE cannot. The NAEP however does not provide actionable information to teachers and schools that can be used to improve student achievement. To do that Wisconsin needs assessments that track students over time, and give teachers usable feedback.
Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) superintendent Dan Nerad noted on February 25th that worst case-scenario, MMSD would need to layoff 289 teachers. The worst-case scenario did not come to fruition. According to the MMSD human resource department the actual number of layoffs was zero. A similar story played out in other major districts.
Data from school district human resource departments reveal that neither the state budget bill nor the state budget repair bill resulted in widespread teacher layoffs. Below is the number of layoffs from the 2010-11 to the 2011-12 school year in six large Wisconsin school districts:
Saturday morning I loaded up the stroller and took my two-year old son downtown to observe the “Occupy Milwaukee” protest.
What we saw at Zeidler Union Square was a whole lot of frustrated people. I am more convinced than ever that high unemployment and a broken political culture are the driving forces behind this movement. I was also pleasantly surprised that everyone was well behaved and for the most part friendly, the police were out in force but as far as I could tell were not tested.
Some other observations:
It was an older crowd: There were young people, including a sizable contingent from Students for a Democratic Society, but there were far more baby boomers. A friendly sixty something woman who must have recognized me as an observer commented, “came to watch the old hippies huh? Well I am proud to be one.”
Another woman who looked a bit older saw my two-year old and told me she was about his age when her parents took her to protest the sale of scrap metal to the Japanese after World War II.
Not too much crazy: I only counted two 9/11 truthers and a handful of self-proclaimed anarchists. The rest were people carrying anti-Scott Walker signs and various references to the occupy moment’s battle cry: We are the 99%. I did meet one man who informed me he could not lead the parade today “because he got arrested at the last one and had to lay low.” For the most part it felt like the teachers and public employees of the early Madison protests and not revolutionaries.
Rhythm sections: As a fan of folk music I was hoping that Zeidler Square would look like Washington Square Park in 1964. Alas drums, whistles, and homemade maracas were the instruments of choice. I saw only one guitar and no singing, just marching and chanting.
Attempts at capitalism: A man dressed like a clown was selling “exclusive occupy Milwaukee buttons” for three dollars apiece. One of the more humorous exchanges of the afternoon occurred when a young protester tried to purchase a button with monopoly money. Upon being told by the vendor that his money was worthless, the protester fired back that U.S. currency was just as worthless due to something about the illegitimacy of the Federal Reserve that I admittedly could not follow.
I watched the crowd march to the Chase Tower before I headed back to Bay View. On the way home I saw people going for walks, saying hello to strangers, working in the yard, and otherwise going about their business. The simple goodwill between diverse people so prevalent on a typical neighborhood Saturday provided a meaningful contrast to the occupy protest.
While I understand the frustration caused by our economic malaise and persistent political gridlock I do not understand the need to unite against a villain. As natural as it is to be disgusted by bonuses for ineffective CEOs and corporate irresponsibility, vanquishing Wall Street does not fix the economy or improve the lot of those struggling to make ends meet.
The protesters on a whole did come off as sincere. Here’s to hoping the sincerity of individuals of divergent viewpoints can lead to policy discussions and solutions that are more positive and constructive than the impassioned protest against a segment of our society.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinelrecently reported on a new civic effort to improve K-12 education in Milwaukee titled “Milwaukee Succeeds.” The effort is certainly ambitious. Erin Richards and Tom Tolan report that it is “focused on large, big-picture ideas that are easy for folks to stand behind, such as making sure all children are prepared to enter school, succeed academically and graduate, take advantage of postsecondary education or training, and contribute to the Milwaukee community.”
It is ironic that the Journal Sentinel also recently ran a profile of former Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) superintendent Lee McMurrin. It was McMurrin who in 1975 unveiled his own ambitious ten-point plan for fixing K-12 education in Milwaukee. His goals, according to an August 6, 1975 Milwaukee Journal story, included improving attendance, achievement, job placement for graduates, and the creation of a plan to engage staff in school improvement.
Ten years later McMurrin’s plan was replaced by a new plan from Milwaukee school board members Joyce Mallory, Mary Bills and David Cullen titled “A Plan for the Future and a Plan for Now.” Their plan, according to a November 17, 1985 Milwaukee Journal article, called for the creation of a 20-member committee of community leaders “to look at the work of futurists and strategic planners and come up with new ideas for running the schools here.” Their committee was to include “religious and business leaders, college educators, legal officials and public officials.”
Released just one month before the MPS school board plan was a report from the “Study Commission on the Quality of Education in the Metropolitan Milwaukee Public Schools.” The Governor Tony Earl-appointed commission called attention to the “unacceptable disparity in educational opportunity and achievement” in Milwaukee. The report proposed a new plan to close the achievement gap, increase parental involvement, improve teacher quality, and better measure student achievement. The report did contain some concrete proposals for things such as small class sizes, but it was also heavy on calls for the creation of new plans in the areas of accountability and teacher recruitment.
Between 1985 and 2011 other plans from various stakeholders have come and gone, most recently in 2007 MPS released their current five-year strategic plan, “Working Together Achieving More.”
What makes the “Milwaukee Succeeds” plan different? Bruce Murphy at Inside Milwaukee finds the plan unique for its ambition, its broad leadership, its focus on Milwaukee pupils in public, charter, and choice schools, and its connection to a similar effort in Cincinnati. Until and if specifics are released it is difficult to judge if this plan has promise, but past experience says be skeptical.
There is a long list of problems plaguing K-12 education in Milwaukee; a lack of engagement is not at the top of that list. The business and philanthropic communities for years have supported both MPS and its alternatives. Most recently the General Electric Foundation pledged $20 million to MPS. This $20 million is in addition to the $8 million in private grants included in the district’s latest budget. There are also organizations supported by the business and philanthropic communities such as Schools that Can and Teach for America already engaged in reform efforts across Milwaukee’s diverse school types.
The success or failure of Milwaukee’s latest plan is dependent on its ability to address the structural issues holding back student achievement. Will MPS’ billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities be addressed? Will the funding of public, choice, and charter school students be aligned? Will regulation of public, choice and charter schools be aligned to target failing schools? Will funding of all schools be tied to student achievement? Will a common system of value-added testing that isolates the impact schools have on student achievement be implemented?
For the sake of Milwaukee, let’s hope all of these issues are addressed. Otherwise “Milwaukee Succeeds” is just another plan.
An article in today’s Capital Times details the ongoing saga of Madison Urban League CEO Kaleem Caire’s efforts to create an all-male charter school targeted towards African-Americans in Madison. The story highlights Wisconsin’s need for an improved charter school law.
The school, Madison Prep, aims to use an extended school day, uniforms, and family engagement to get 6th – 12th graders ready for college. The need for a new approach in Madison is great, just 48.3% of African-American students graduate high school in four years. The problem is that charter schools outside of Milwaukee and Racine can only be authorized by school districts and the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) has not been eager to authorize Madison Prep.
The issues holding back the authorization of Madison Prep are not education issues. According to the article by Susan Troller, MMSD board vice-president Marj Passman is concerned about “a proposed bonus system” for Madison Prep teachers and wants to know “whether the new school would hire union members for custodial services or as food service workers.”
Two other hiccups appear solved. There is a tentative agreement that Madison Prep teachers will fall under the Madison Teachers Inc. union contract, and that there will be an all-female school offering an identical curriculum. The need for the sister school stems from a state law (120.13(37m)) that allows single-sex schools only if a similar program is offered to the other sex.
Most of these non-education issues could be avoided if a body other than MMSD could authorize the school. A stalled effort last summer to create a state charter authorizing board would have given Caire a path free of union contracts and endless hearings. Another option to improve Wisconsin’s charter law is allowing all state universities and technical schools to authorize schools. Currently only UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside, and the Milwaukee Area Technical College have such authority.
There is no guarantee that Madison Prep will be successful, but unlike traditional schools a charter can be shut down if it fails to meet the academic goals outlined in its charter. The case for Madison Prep comes down to a simple policy question: Is it better to leave kids in schools we know are failing them or to create schools whose very survival is dependent on meeting academic goals?
Wisconsin already has a funding gap for its highways. That gap as well as the billions of dollars needed to fund the cost of Interstates over the next thirty years should be addressed responsibly and efficiently. Some conservative voices have reacted with skepticism out of concern that tolling is simply a new general revenue source for transportation funding. Poole addresses this issue by calling for a value added tolling system where new revenues can only be spent when need-criteria have been met, and only on “the construction, operating, and maintenance costs of the Interstates.”
Fears on the potential regressive nature of tolling were also voiced yesterday afternoon on WTMJ radio. The argument is that low-income people who must use toll roads to get to work would be disproportionately impacted. Perhaps a valid concern, but one that is less problematic than the long-term impact of other funding options like the gas tax.
As cars become more fuel-efficient it takes a higher fuel tax to raise the same amount of revenue. The burden of a higher gas tax disproportionately impacts the poor because of their lower incomes and the likelihood that they are driving used cars with lower gas mileage. In addition, tolling generates revenues from out-of-state drivers, drivers that will not necessarily pay any fuel tax as they pass through Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has an Interstate infrastructure that must be operated, maintained, and improved over the next three decades. It takes revenue to do this. The political events of the past year have illustrated the consequences of ignoring budget realities; Poole’s proposal is a responsible long-term solution to funding our Interstates and it should be considered.
I’ve been following the current debt ceiling news somewhat schizophrenically – I’ve been obsessively reading everything the major newspapers puts out, then I get frustrated and try to pretend nothing’s out of the ordinary. Two seconds later I’m refreshing the New York Times webpage in hopes that they’ll have announced a surprise deal that everyone managed to keep secret. It hasn’t been a winning strategy on my part, I’ll admit.
Other people have been more productive. Stateline has a breakdown of how Wisconsin agencies may be impacted. It estimates that Medicaid, law enforcement training, and veterans’ benefits will be hardest hit. The Journal Sentinel reports that, according to a survey commissioned by Governor Walker, Wisconsin has enough funds to maintain its federal programs for about three months. After that, if the federal government is still in default, the state will have to re-prioritize fund allocation.
Even if the federal government somehow resolves this by Tuesday, there still may be some longer-term implications for Wisconsin government. The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the GOP has introduced a bill requiring Wisconsin agencies to devise contingency plans if the federal government can’t meet its funding obligations to the state. Their rationale is that even if Congress raises the debt ceiling this year, the problem is not going to go away in years to come. What a depressing (but increasingly probable) idea.
Freshman House Republicans have promised to slash both the size and spending of the Federal Government, and they’ve certainly appeared to stick to their guns during the current budget showdown. But behind the scenes, reports the New York Times, many are still attempting to channel funds to their home states. As an example, the article mentions that Michele Bachmann and our own Representative Sean P. Duffy have been pushing for a new four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River.
“Opponents labeled the bridge an earmark, but Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Bachmann said the bridge was critical to handle increased traffic that an 80-year-old bridge nearby can no longer handle alone. They defend the spending by arguing that it was not an earmark since there were no specific costs listed in the bill itself, nor is it a financing bill. The legislation calls only for a bridge to be built.”
I don’t know much about the proposed project and can’t say whether or not it’s justified in this era of reduced spending. It caught my attention after reading about how Wisconsin taxpayers may end up paying more for existing train service between Milwaukee and Chicago than they would have with the jettisoned high-speed rail project. After all the controversy over the high-speed rail, I am skeptical of legislation that mandates the construction of a bridge without sorting out by whom, and how, the project will be funded.
Primaries began for recall elections today in some districts. Nine senators are facing recall elections, an unprecedented number that has some questioning whether or not these recall attempts are justified. Among them are the editors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
“The Editorial Board will not recommend candidates in the recall elections. We believe policy arguments are best resolved on the floors of legislative bodies or at the ballot box during regular elections. Recalls should be used to punish gross malfeasance or corruption—something that cannot wait for the normal election cycle—not to overturn the results of an election or to dispute policy differences.
Advocates argue that the recalls hold politicians accountable. But these elections, arising from the heat generated by a single issue, risk further dividing the electorate and giving rise to a perpetual campaign. What’s the harm in waiting a few months? Each of these senators will face voters in regular elections next year. Hold them accountable then—after passions have cooled…
We won’t try to discourage voters from going to the polls in the coming days. The recall elections are a fact of life, and voters should do their duty. But we won’t encourage this misguided process by recommending candidates. And we’ll continue to hope that sometime sanity returns to Wisconsin politics and the distractions come to an end.”
Policy questions are ideally hashed out on the floor of the legislature. But one of the reasons why senators are facing recall elections is that, with the lack of compromise from Republicans and the flight of the Democrats, many voters feel that the process failed. Recalls elections are a way for the electorate to check the power of their representatives—if a senator wins the recall, she was probably acting on behalf of her constituents. If not, then maybe he was abusing his power. Of course it’s not a perfect system; democracy has always been messy. It has not, however, been a trivial thing to bring these recall efforts about. As long as legislators don’t face a recall election with every tough vote, the option to attempt a recall can be an important check on our representatives.
Ultimately, the fact that these elections are so historically unprecedented indicates that Wisconsin voters have not been abusing the recall process. Everything about the issues surrounding collective bargaining and the way they played out in the Legislature was fairly unprecedented. If recalls became an annual occurrence, additional restrictions may be necessary. As is, recalls are an important check for the electorate to curtail egregious claims from the Legislature that they are merely carrying out the people’s wishes. Hopefully when the elections are all said and done, we’ll have a better sense of what people in Wisconsin actually wanted their senators to do last March.