I have blogged recently about the absurdity of Madison Prep having to get its education plan approved by the school board of a district that has proved incapable of effectively educating the very students Madison Prep seeks to serve. The state charter authorizing board would give startup charter schools like Madison Prep an authorizer option outside of their local school board. No longer would a resistant board be a brick wall for new charter schools.
SB-22 only allows schools located in districts with more than 2,000 students (about 25% of all districts in Wisconsin) to be chartered by the statewide authorizer. The provision, likely added to protect small school districts from enrollment loss, limits the options of parents seeking alternatives in smaller school districts.
“Charter schools are not evil, but this bill is being pushed by an awful lot of people who believe public schools are evil…”
Sen. Jauch’s quote is a perfect example of how the education reform policy debate can be driven by factors totally unrelated to improving student achievement. Reform efforts like SB-22 should be evaluated by their content, not their supporters. One can only hope that the individuals serving on a future statewide authorizing board judge school applicants on merit and not ideology.
Even with its limitations, the reforms in SB-22 can give parents more choice and increase the number of Wisconsin schools whose very existence is dependent on their ability to deliver results. Any reform that accomplishes both these things is a reform worth having.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS) reports today on the 10.3% local tax levy increase in Milwaukee attributable to the Milwaukee school choice program. Because the choice program is not a taxing authority, the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) levy is used as a fiscal agent to pay 34% of the total cost of the MPCP. As I’ve noted before, the levy used to pay for choice does not lower the actual total revenue MPS receives.
There are two reasons for the increase in the MPCP levy this year. First, the local share of the cost of the choice program increased from 30% in 2010-11 to 34% this year due to a reduction in state poverty aid used to offset the MPCP levy. The second and more important reason, which Erin Richards focuses on in her MJS article, is the increase in choice program enrollment. The Department of Public Instruction estimates 22,400 Milwaukee students are using choice this year, up from about 20,300 last year. The rise is a direct result of changes in the 2011-13 state budget that raised income eligibility requirements for participating students and allowed suburban schools to enroll Milwaukee pupils through the program.
Notably, without these changes the MPCP tax levy would be about $65 million, 31% higher than the actual 2011-12 levy of $49.6 million. While the one-time double-digit levy increase is eye-catching, it is far less dramatic in the context of the significant state efforts to reduce the local costs of the MPCP since 2005-06.
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:
“Much of the problem directly relates to the impact of the choice or voucher program. The funding voucher flaw was partly fixed under the previous Democratic state administration, and it helped place our books more in balance. In addition, if all the students who left MPS for suburbs and private schools were still in MPS, the school system would have far fewer problems in supporting these retirees. But the new expansion of the voucher program and the state funding cuts make the long term viability of this school district perilous.”
Blaming the choice program makes little sense. What Falk calls the funding voucher flaw does not cost MPS revenue.
First a quick primer on Wisconsin school finance. School districts across the state are allowed to raise revenue annually through a combination of state aid and local property taxes. The amount is determined by multiplying the previous year’s membership count by the district’s per-pupil revenue limit. For example, if MPS had 80,000 pupils last year and a revenue limit of $10,000 per-pupil, the district could raise $800 million in state aid and local property tax. The majority of districts in Wisconsin (including MPS) use all of their revenue generating authority annually.
The funding flaw refers to the sources of the hypothetical $800 million. The amount that comes from state aid is determined by a district’s per-pupil property valuation. The poorer a district is, the more state aid it receives. The more state aid a district receives, the less revenue it raises via the property tax levy.
The Milwaukee Public Schools and Mayor Tom Barrett have advocated that MPS count the 20,000 plus students in the choice program for purposes of determining Milwaukee’s per-pupil property valuation. If MPS counts more kids, the district lowers its per-pupil property valuation and increases the portion of their revenue that comes from state aid. All this does is lower the MPS property tax levy, it does not give the district more spending authority.
The choice program only hurts MPS’ bottom line to the extent that parents are choosing other options instead of MPS. The district’s unfunded liabilities are a massive problem, but blaming that problem on a program that empowers Milwaukee parents to choose the education they want for their child is misguided.
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.
Both the Associated Press (AP) and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) today highlight the relationship between reductions in school aids across the state and the way school choice and charter programs are funded. The AP story notes “$110 million [was] taken from public schools to pay for an expansion of voucher and charter schools in Milwaukee and Racine.” Unfortunately the story fails to mention that the statewide aid reductions to pay for the charter program and the aid reductions in Milwaukee and Racine to pay for choice do not translate into less funding for school districts.
Why? Neither the charter nor choice aid reductions impact revenue limits. Districts can and do make up for the reduction with property taxes. In English, this means the Milwaukee Public Schools, Racine Unified, and the majority of school districts in the state that set their education levy at the highest permitted amount do not lose actual dollars because of these programs, they simply receive them from a different source.
If property taxpayers are upset about supporting successfulreforms that cost less per-pupil than traditional public schools, so be it. But folks in Milwaukee, Racine, and the vast majority of Wisconsin school districts need not worry about choice and charter reforms taking money out of public school classrooms, because they are not.
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.