Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wisconsin is trying to run away from quality education

By Tom Beebe
Executive Director, Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools

Racine public schools have 21,000 students and a poverty rate of almost 60 percent. The economic slowdown has not treated this Wisconsin community kindly, as the school board just passed an interim budget that both raises taxes and cuts spending on kids

That’s sad, because we know what Racine and other communities across the country need to do for young people: Put highly effective teachers in front of kids who have access to challenging classes and quality resources, and we need to start their education early.

Instead, over the last two decades, hundreds of millions of dollars of opportunities have been stripped away and now a statewide budget has been approved that will cut children’s chances to learn by another $1.6 billion.

Racine school board members say enough is enough. No state budget should be balanced on the backs of kids. Left with no way out, board members are talking about suing the state to make sure Racine’s young people have the opportunities they need to learn.

The devastation to Wisconsin’s once proud public school system is breathtaking.

On top of past cuts, this Legislature eliminated Advanced Placement grants and school nurses; pared back school breakfasts, bilingual services, and aid to small schools; decreased the state’s share of the cost of special education and poverty services; slashed general aid by about $800 million; and told local school districts they couldn’t spend their own money to make up the difference.

Silly? Absolutely. Wisconsin is running as fast and as far as possible away from what we all know is right for our kids, their schools, and our communities.

The budget described above isn’t even in effect yet. All this pain, not just in Racine but around the state, is from past mistakes:
  • The Mosinee School District says its elementary Spanish program and unique outdoor science classes are “very good” but will have to be cut anyway.
  • The Phillips School District recently met its budget goal by slashing $662,800, including eliminating a late bus and reducing classroom supplies, and extra-curricular activities. Then, the district learned that the state's new budget means the board will have to come up with an additional $440,000 in cuts. 
  • Rufus King High School is a star in Milwaukee Public Schools. Yet at the very time we want better educated graduates the funding system reduces our investment in quality education. According to The King’s Page, the school lost in French, business, and English; the amount of materials for students and teachers was slashed; photography was cut; and the music and art departments cut back.
If Wisconsin is going to get out of the mess it is in, every child in the state needs opportunities to learn that will give them a chance to succeed, boost the economy, and contribute to society.

We are getting the opposite. Over the past two decades, state government—on both sides of the aisle—has taken away hundreds of millions of dollars of effective teachers, quality pre-schools, challenging curriculum, and equitable educational resources.

Now we have a Governor and a Legislature that has gone even further by suggesting that if we just take away another $1.6 billion of opportunities to learn children will be better educated.

As illogical as that is, they have also said that giving some of those public tax dollars to even more private schools for vouchers is better. Even if that worked (and the data questions that), it helps only a few children in Wisconsin. Furthermore, according to a recently filed claim, these policies discriminate against children with special needs

"It really isn't choice," said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. "It is an attack on public education. …. This is the first step in disassembling public education and sending everyone to their own school based on their individual religious and social philosophy.”

Stunning, isn’t it? Everything we know to be true—based on research, experience, and common sense—has been cast aside. When we should move toward the future, we run headlong into the past and call it progress.

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