By Tom Still
MADISON – It’s not surprising that Gov. Jim Doyle and the Republican-led Legislature are still at odds over how the state’s latest budget will treat public school districts across Wisconsin. Doyle thinks he saved K-12 districts from cuts without hurting taxpayers; the Republicans believe Doyle abused his veto power and put more spending on the credit card.
The debate over how to pay for public education appears destined never to be settled until policymakers from both parties agree upon what it is they’re willing to buy. In other words, what’s an “adequate” public education – in 21st century terms – and how much should it cost?
That’s the core question being addressed by a new task force called the “Wisconsin School Finance Adequacy Initiative.” Before you yawn, turn the page or click on the next Internet news item, consider the possibility that this education study committee might actually get something done.
There have been a number of blue-ribbon committees over the years that have tackled the question of how Wisconsin pays for K-12 education, and most have come up with some good ideas. Of course, good isn’t always politically possible, so a lot of past work have wound up gathering cobwebs on the shelf.
There’s no guarantee the same fate won’t befall this study, except there are several reasons why it has a chance to break the political logjam surrounding the future of public education in Wisconsin.
First, the study is focused on what constitutes an “adequate” education for kids growing up today in Wisconsin. It will ask: How much money per pupil is needed to educate students to Wisconsin’s proficiency standards? The study will produce a per pupil cost figure, with adjustments for varying pupil needs as well as school and district contexts, and it will show how that figure will work in a “foundation” school finance formula.
Second, there are no plans for the task force to get involved in debating where the money should come from. There’s no use arguing over the source of the money until there’s agreement on what programs are worth funding – and which should be tossed overboard or left as local options.
Third, the task force isn’t stacked one way or the other. In fact, it’s pretty bipartisan. Led by UW-Madison Professor Allan Odden, who has a national reputation for challenging the education status quo with facts and figures, the task force includes a broad spectrum of interests. They include Republican and Democratic state legislators, business leaders and teachers’ union representatives, administrators and school board members, taxpayer watchdogs and policy analysts.
There’s also a quiet sense of urgency among the task force members, few of whom seem satisfied with Wisconsin’s current K-12 education policies. They want Wisconsin schools to produce future generations of students who are good citizens and prepared for the work force of the 21st century, which will be more demanding in a global economy.
Look for task force members to ask some tough questions: Why do some school districts get superb results while spending less than districts with only average results? What are the right incentives to spark innovation in schools? How do you define “adequacy” (a term driven, in part, by past court decisions related to schools) in an era when simply being adequate may not be good enough? How should teachers be compensated?
The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s last word on the subject was that the state Constitution requires “the opportunity for students to be proficient in mathematics, science, reading and writing, geography and history, and to receive instruction in the arts and music, vocational training, social sciences, health, physical education and foreign language, in accordance with their age and aptitude.”
The task force should have preliminary recommendations in time for the next state budget cycle, the planning for which begins in the late fall of 2006. In the meantime, don’t be shy about following the progress of the task force at www.wcer.wisc.edu/cpre
As one member of the group said, “I don’t have any room on my shelf for another binder.” What’s needed is a plan that can be accepted by Republicans and Democrats alike.