By Tom Still


MADISON – If you’re looking for an ambitious mission statement, consider this pledge from the bipartisan Wisconsin School Finance Adequacy Initiative: “We will not simply propose adding new dollars on top of current dollars, but propose a complete new reuse of all dollars – first those currently in the (K-12 public school) system, and then any additional dollars if that is the finding of the adequacy analysis.”


In other words, this blue-ribbon panel won’t be satisfied with recommending more of the same when it comes to public education in Wisconsin, unless “more of the same” is producing tangible dividends for students, their communities and the overall economy.


Now halfway through its study of Wisconsin public schools, the 26-member task force led by UW-Madison Professor Allen Odden is trying to live up to its promise to scrutinize current spending levels and to adjust them up, down – or even out – based on empirical evidence of what works and what does not.


It’s not a simple exercise, and final recommendations are still months away. But the group’s deliberations are testing assumptions about what constitutes an “adequate” 21st century public education, and how much that education should cost.


With help from business leaders, key legislators, taxpayer watchdogs and educators on the task force, Odden and his team are designing prototypical elementary, middle and high schools. They’re recommending more spending in some areas, if state and national evidence suggests there’s a payback, and reducing or essentially freezing dollars in other categories.


For example, studies show that pre-school education for 3- and 4-year-olds and full-day kindergarten yield dramatic results over time. Preliminary recommendations by the task force would put more resources in those areas. Professional development for teachers is another early winner. Classroom aides not connected to specific programs or multiple assistant principals don’t come out well in the school prototypes.


The goal is improving performance in all schools and meeting proficiency standards set by the state and federal governments. However, the unwritten standards set by a competitive global economy are unofficial factors in the equation.


“Wisconsin cannot be satisfied with improving performance only marginally,” reads a preliminary report. “Such modest gains will not allow the economic vitality needed for the state to continue to prosper, to provide the workers needed for the state’s growing knowledge-based economy, or for all individuals to enjoy a good life.”


The report notes that Wisconsin’s education system needs to “double or triple current performance so that in the short term, 60 percent of students achieve at or above proficiency, and in the longer term 90 percent of students achieve at that level.”


Wisconsin suffers from what might be described as the “Lake Wobegone Syndrome.” Like the residents of Garrison Keillor’s mythical Minnesota burg, we believe our kids are all above average. Judged by some national standards, they are; judged by international standards; it’s not true at the K-12 level. Only after post-secondary education do American students begin to climb up the global proficiency scale.


Some tough questions remain to be answered: 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.”


Fiscal realities about teacher compensation and health insurance, retirement plans and more could ultimately influence many task force recommendations. For now, however, all of the players are still at the table. As the next governor and Legislature look for guidance in financing K-12 schools, this report may provide some valuable help.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and a member of the WisconsinSchool Finance Adequacy Initiative ( He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.