George Wagner brings out the old “What’s the matter with Kansas” argument in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. For those unfamiliar, “What’s the matter with Kansas” was a book written in 2004 by Thomas Frank that argued Kansas residents supported Republicans despite it being against their economic interest. The implication is that Kansas conservatives are ignorant and/or being distracted by social issues.
Wagner applies the sprit of the argument to income inequality, citing a finding that Americans, “even traditional Republican constituencies,” support a more equal income distribution. Yet, Americans somehow do not support raising taxes on CEOs. Why? Wagner says the reason is ignorance, writing: “most Americans believe that wealth distribution is a lot more equal than it actually is.”
I agree with Wagner that growing income inequality is a potential problem. Data from the Department of Revenue indicates that between 1996 and 2009 the percentage of all Wisconsin tax filers with annual incomes between $20,000 and $70,000 has decreased from 43% to 40% while the percentage of all filers with incomes above $200,000 increased from 0.78% to 1.71%. To the extent that is attributable to an inequality of opportunity, it is troubling.
However, it is not clear why a higher percentage of Wisconsinites are earning more than $200,000 today than in 1996. More wealthy Wisconsin residents can be viewed as a positive, especially given that the percentage of total state tax revenue being collected from filers earning over $200,000 annually has increased from 14.9% to 25.3% between 1996 and 2009. More importantly, the increase in wealthy Wisconsin residents is certainly not the reason that 46% of Milwaukee children are impoverished, as Wagner alludes. Increasing taxes on the rich, a solution that Wagner argues Americans are too ignorant to support, will not in and of itself decrease poverty.
I’ll call this the housing project principal, based on that well-meaning urban policy failure. People needed better housing, so cities built public housing projects. It solved the immediate problem facing the homeless and those with inadequate housing, but did nothing to address the myriad of social issues of which a lack of adequate housing was the most obvious symptom. Yes, poverty is a lack of income, but it is so much more. Simply taking money from the wealthy and giving it to the poor does not address urban education failures, infant mortality, inadequate health-care, crime, or any other of the social problems that are also symptoms and causes of poverty.
Growing income inequality is a problem if it means that the United States is no longer an egalitarian society where everyone has a chance at success. One of the reasons I blog so often on urban education is that addressing policy failures in that arena is necessary for our society to get closer to true equality of opportunity. The discomfort I and others have with proposals to simply soak the rich comes not from ignorance, but a desire to enable success rather than punish it.
As expected, the Madison Metropolitan School Board voted 5 -2 last night against authorizing the Madison Prep charter school. Only two board members overseeing a school district with an African-American graduation rate below 50% saw fit to support a new approach
Those voting against the school did offer reasons. Board member Beth Moss told the Wisconsin State Journal she voted no because of concerns about the school’s ability to serve students needing more than one year of remedial education. Board member Ed Hughes said he could not support the school until after the Madison teachers union contract expires in 2013.
But no worries, Superintendent Dan Nerad told the Wisconsin State Journal he has a plan:
“Nerad has said next month he will introduce a plan to address the achievement gap between white and minority students.”
I cannot help but compare what is happening in Madison today with the desegregation lawsuit led by Lloyd Barbee in Milwaukee back in the 60s and 70s. Barbee struggled to prove the Milwaukee Public Schools were segregated because the district refused to keep records on or even refer to race in district documents. To do so would prove there was a problem.
School board approval of a non-union school designed to address the struggles of minority pupils would be admitting that Madison too has a problem. So instead of a new school with a new approach, we have excuses and the vague promise of a plan.
Working in and around the Capitol it is easy to forget that budgets and statuary changes are more than numbers and information papers. The biggest lesson I have learned in 2011 is that major change, even when necessary, impacts real people and creates real consequences.
The most extraordinary story of the year was, of course, the events surrounding Governor Walker’s budget repair bill. You have to hand it to the 14 Democratic Senators who left the state to avoid a vote on Act 10. Though that action divided the state and ultimately failed to stop the passage of Walker’s collective bargaining reform, it did enable the political backlash that turned Wisconsin politics into a national story. It also sparked a movement that will likely continue until a gubernatorial recall election next year.
As I have written before, I am no fan of the recall. In a state as politically split as Wisconsin has long been it sets a precedent that threatens to put the state in perpetual campaign mode to the determent of Wisconsinites. But that does not mean I do not understand why public employees are upset.
Take for example a friend of mine who is a fundraiser at a state university. He exceeded his fundraising goals each of the three years he has held the position. Yet his take-home pay has been reduced every year. Of course he is not happy with the situation. Collective bargaining may have been the rallying cry, but it most certainly was the hits to livelihoods that brought tens of thousands of people to the streets of Madison in February and inspired hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites to sign recall petitions.
To quote the title to this entry, people matter…including public employees. Several former State Senators already victims of recall elections have surely come to understand this. But the future of the state also matters. So much of the initial reaction to Walker’s reforms has been short-term; we know that state aid to local governments has been reduced. We also know many local governments used the reforms in Act 10 to reduce the immediate impact of aid cuts. However, the long-term impact of Act 10 is likely to be more substantive.
In the Milwaukee Public Schools for example, Act 10 enabled the school board to finally address its multi-billion dollar unfunded health-care liability through modest increases in employee healthcare contributions and short-term pay freezes. Other local governments face similar liability costs that threaten their long-term ability to provide necessary services; they too have more options than ever before because of Act 10. Though initially painful for many, Act 10 removed barriers to effective and sustainable local governance to the future benefit of Wisconsin residents.
My hope for next year is that the state can get past the bitter divisions of 2011, that policymakers recognize that politics is a tool for serving the residents of Wisconsin and not an end in itself. People matter, no matter the political make-up of this state.
Late last week I had the pleasure of receiving my City of Milwaukee property tax bill. Though a mistake at City Hall prevents me from seeing how my bill changed since last year, my bill did include a small yellow piece of paper telling me the portion of the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) levy that is going to fund the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). I apparently have my state Senator Chris Larson to thank for this information.
“Since September, Milwaukee-area legislators have worked with the Milwaukee Treasurer, Comptroller, Mayor, and members of the Common Council and MPS Board of Directors to develop an information sheet to be distributed with property tax bills providing separate cost information for MPS and MPCP, which was formerly listed as one lump sum.”
Transparency is good, but it is worth mentioning that the fact that a portion of the MPS levy goes to fund some of the MPCP is not news. Just last week I posted a breakdown of the 2010 levy, all it took was a calculator and MPS budget documents. More important, paying for a portion of the choice program in and of itself is not a bad deal for Milwaukee taxpayers. About 17% of the levy pays for the local cost of the choice program ($49.6 million out of $297.8 million), which educates about 21% of Milwaukee’s levy-supported students (23,198 out of 110,351). And lest we forget, in supporting the MPCP Milwaukee taxpayers are supporting schools producing higher graduation rates than MPS.
Senator Larson clouds the issue of MPCP funding in his press release by saying “This legislation takes a step in the right direction by showing taxpayers how the funding flaw is directly affecting them.” The fact that the Milwaukee taxpayer pays for a portion of the choice program is not any kind of flaw. The pamphlet included in my tax bill is unrelated to what the mayor and others have deemed the funding flaw. The term refers to the fact that Milwaukee does not get to count the portion of MPCP pupils supported by the MPS levy for purposes of property valuation. Counting the kids would shift more aid to Milwaukee and lower the tax levy.
The funding flaw is a legitimate taxpayer issue, but it has nothing to do with education. MPS does not get to spend more if the flaw is addressed. The bigger question I have is why have Milwaukee legislators not solved this issue they profess to care so much about? Mayor Barrett, Fred Kessler, and Chris Sinicki have all been arguing for a fix to the flaw since 2006. That year Representative Sinicki wrote in a press release:
“I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues in the legislature and Governor Doyle to ease the burden on Milwaukee taxpayers of paying for this program.”
Notably, Milwaukee legislators supported substantial regulatory changes in the choice program in 2009 as part of a budget passed by a Democratically controlled legislature and signed by Jim Doyle. However, no funding flaw fix based on counting MPCP kids was included in this budget.
Almost six years after Mayor Barrett and Milwaukee legislators began complaining about the funding flaw we still have no fix, just its continuous use by Milwaukee politicians as an excuse to attack the choice program….and of course a small yellow sheet of paper in my tax bill.
John Gurda wrote this weekend on the Socialist roots of the Milwaukee Public School’s (MPS) Department of Recreation and Community Services. The department offers sports programs, community education, and various other activities for the Milwaukee community. Gurda argues, and I agree, that Milwaukee Recreation is an asset to the city and its residents. The question I have is should it be part of MPS?
I do not question the ability of MPS to run the department, just the rationale for having a program not directly related to the education of MPS students housed in the school district. Maybe the task of providing recreational opportunities for residents of Milwaukee would be better placed at the City or County.
Perhaps more important, Milwaukee Recreation is funded through MPS; 4.4% of the 2010 MPS tax levy ($13.3 million) was for this department. This raises a broader question, should the MPS tax levy be used to raise funds for anything beyond educating MPS pupils?
In 2010, only about 80% ($244,262,102) of the MPS levy went towards regular district operations.
13.2% ($40,476,118) paid a portion of the costs of pupils in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
2.6% ($7,914,072) paid a portion of the cost of pupils in independent charter schools
4.4% ($13,334,418) paid for the Department of Recreation and Community Services through the community service levy
All of these programs serve Milwaukee citizens and it is logical that Milwaukee taxpayers contribute to their funding. However, using the school district as the taxing authority to pay for non-MPS programs complicates education reform efforts.
Debates on the merits of school choice, for example, inevitably bog down on the issue of what has been deemed the funding flaw. The funding flaw refers to the fact that MPS levies for a portion of the cost of pupils it does not get to count for purposes of property valuation. While an issue for Milwaukee taxpayers, it has absolutely nothing to do with improving student achievement.
A key component to improving education in Milwaukee and elsewhere is removing the distractions that too often prevent efforts for real reform from beginning. Those seeking to raise student achievement levels in Wisconsin would be wise to consider what a school district should and should not be, and not let issues unrelated to student performance derail positive change.