When it comes to fixing our school funding system, Wisconsin does not lack for ideas.
The Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) held a very informative Legislative Issues Conference in Stevens Point on November 3, attended by more than 200 school board members from around the state. The program was focused on the issues of school funding reform and taxation.
An overview of UW-Madison Professor Alan Odden's two-year study of school funding and achievement, supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, was presented by two researchers who work with Odden.
The UW's Consortium for Policy Research in Education also includes participation by the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and Northwestern. Their current printed report is titled "Moving From Good to Great in Wisconsin: Funding Schools Adequately And Doubling Student Performance," and opens with a telling quotation from Michelangelo: "The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and fall short, but that we aim too low and achieve our mark."
Their recommendations all wisely begin with the individual students and society's responsibility to them. After all, if we fail to educate our young, how will we compete with the Chinese -- and who will pay our Social Security and Medicare bills?
This comprehensive study is becoming a national model, and many other states are watching us -- just like in the "olden days" when Wisconsin was a progressive guide for the whole country.
Everyone who is interested in learning more about our schools, how they are managed and how they are funded, is advised to check the CPRE Web site for more information.
We were also presented a report by the School Finance Network, a working group which includes the associations of school boards, principals and superintendents, the state's two teachers unions, WAES, the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and the state PTA. The coalition was formed in mid-2006 and is facilitated by the dean of the UW-Madison School of Education. Their purpose is to develop a common agenda for reforming the funding system for the state's pre-kindergarten through 12th grade schools.
Another presentation was by representatives of The Wisconsin Way -- in their words, "a non-partisan, grassroots effort to reduce property taxes by creating a more fair and equitable funding system that promotes excellence in education and public service." It is a truly unlikely partnership of WEAC, the state's largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Counties Association, the Wisconsin Realtors Association, WTBA, and the state roadbuilders organization.
Finally, four state legislators who have responsibility for our education policies (and who have finally, at long last, been freed from the budget battles) formed a discussion panel and responded to some of the many hard-hitting questions asked by the school board members. The legislators were Senators John Lehman and Dan Kapanke, the chair and the ranking minority member of the senate education committee, and Representatives Brett Davis and Sondy Pope-Roberts, their counterparts in the Assembly. The discussion was frank and serious.
It was heartening to learn that so many people are spending so much time and energy searching for a solution to this growing problem. It is clear to everyone -- or it certainly should be -- that our schools are a priority, and that the funding mechanism in place for them in our state is woefully inadequate and frequently downright unfair. Most of our school districts are dealing with declining enrollments and rising school costs that cannot continue to be carried on the backs of property taxpayers. Something must be done to correct this matter -- and it must be done soon. The stakes are high.
There are other revenue sources to consider: It was pointed out that corporations pay a decreasing percentage of the state tax burden and most of what they do pay is shunted off into increased cost to the consumer. Business taxes should be re-examined, despite what Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce has to say about it.
There was also a discussion about the Wisconsin sales tax. Our 5 percent rate is lower than that in most of the surrounding states: Michigan's is 6 percent, Illinois's 6.25 percent and Minnesota's 6.5 percent (Iowa also has 5 percent). Maybe some products and services currently exempted from sales tax should be added to the list -- like hair salons and pet groomers perhaps?
The dialogue has begun, and there are many different plans to be considered. Let's hope that they will be -- and soon. Our kids are waiting.
November 15, 2007
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John Smart lives in Park Falls, is a member of the Wisconsin Governor's Commission on the United Nations, the board of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and a frequent guest on Wisconsin Public Radio's Ideas Network.