Why I Decided NOT to Run for School Board

Almost immediately after my unexpected departure from Disability Rights Wisconsin, about 2 months ago, many friends and professional colleagues encouraged me to run for political office.  While a number of opportunities became available, such as Dane County Judge and Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) School Board, given my nearly 18 years of school advocacy, and my lack of desire to be an objective judge,  I have given serious consideration to running for the School Board seat which Beth Moss (who served admirably for 2 terms) is departing.

There are many good reasons to run for the MMSD school board.  They include:

  • Beth Moss’ departure will leave a void on the school board in terms of having a strong voice for the nearly 20% of MMSD students with disabilities, a voice I certainly could have filled;
  • MMSD continues to struggle with closing the achievement gap, with students of color and students with disabilities lagging behind academically and failing to graduate in acceptable numbers.  My work for the past 18 years involved advocacy to address this critical issue.  Indeed, I was a key player in forcing MMSD to finally implement 4 year old kindergarten, a critical first step in closing the achievement gap.
  • MMSD continues to struggle with how to handle discipline appropriately. Although it has begun to implement a system of Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) to address this problem, it has not done so with fidelity and suspension rates remain alarmingly high, especially for African-Americans and students with disabilities.  My work in closing the Schools to Prison Pipeline has addressed this issue.
  • The MMSD school board has often struggled with decision making.  This was most clearly evidenced by last year’s debate over creating a charter school for African-American students, which led to the departure of Superintendent Dan Nerad.  My 25+ years of experience as a non-profit Board member helps me understand both functional and dysfunctional methods of board decision making.
  • MMSD has failed to establish a clear system of accountability, so that the public and all those who work within the school district have a clear understanding of where their responsibilities lay, and what the consequences are for failing to meet those responsibilities.  I should note, that sadly, few school districts have such a system of accountability.  The settlement I negotiated in my class action lawsuit against Milwaukee Public School (MPS) and the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction had, at its core, a detailed system of accountability for improving the results at MPS.

Given all these compelling reasons to run for the open school board seat, readers may wonder why I have decided not to run.  I certainly believe I am qualified to run, and the level of support I have received suggests that I would be a credible candidate.

Any time I make an important decision, I consult with friends, family, and professional colleagues. Amongst friends, I noticed an interesting dichotomy. Friends whom I knew mainly through my work uniformly supported my candidacy. I thank them for that support as their encouragement led me to give this serious consideration and it is certainly comforting that many people believe I would be a good school board member. But, my closest personal friends were, at best, neutral. They cautioned about the impact my candidacy might have on my precious family time, as well as the likely frustration I might encounter as a school board member.

My family was also neutral, and while I believe they would have supported any decision I made, for me to declare a candidacy without full support from my family has certainly impacted upon my decision.

Ultimately, however, my decision not to run is based on policy reasons.  For over 20 years, Wisconsin’s method of financing school districts, a system known as revenue caps, has essentially emasculated school boards, by severely constraining the revenue which local school boards can raise.  Instituted by former Gov. Tommy Thompson, this system was established as a 3 legged stool in order to keep property taxes from rising precipitously.  The 3 legs were:

  1. Capping school district revenue by a fairly low rate of inflation, coupled with student enrollment, which severely harms declining enrollment school districts with fixed costs.
  2. Capping teacher salary growth.
  3. Providing 2/3 of public school funding from state general purpose revenues (GPR).

While there have been many critics of this system, one thing that EVERYONE agreed upon until Gov. Jim Doyle’s last term, was that the 3 legged stool would fall over if any 1 of the legs was removed.  For reasons that can only be explained by short sighted allegiance to the teacher’s union, in Gov. Doyle’s last term, he eliminated the cap on teacher’s salaries,  But, he did so while reducing state funding under the 2/3 promise.  The result–an explosion in property taxes, which certainly helped lead to the accession of Gov. Walker and the passage of the now infamous Act 10 striking down collective bargaining, and a titanic $1.6 billion funding cut to public schools during the current biennium.

As one friend questioned me, “why would you want to sit on a school board when your hands would be constantly tied due to an inability to raise sufficient revenue?”  He added that due to this dilemma, the school board’s role has largely been reduced to deciding who to say no to.

In starting Systems Change Consulting, I have made a commitment to help change systems in a progressive manner to try to raise the bar for our whole society, but in particular, for the neediest amongst us.  In contemplating this run for school board, I have determined that right now, my role as a change agent is better utilized as an outside influence, rather than an inside decision maker.

How should our school financing system be changed to fix Wisconsin’s dysfunctional underfunded system?

  • Establish an adequacy model for school financing.  Although many politicians talk about running government like a business, in reality this rarely happens, because if it did, the starting points would be: a) determine your desired outcome; b) determine what it costs to achieve your desired outcome; and c) raise sufficient revenue to achieve your desired outcome.  Wisconsin has simply failed to do this when it comes to educating its children and our longstanding achievement gap, poverty gap and incarceration gap are the sorry results for this failure.
  • Reduce or eliminate public school reliance on the property tax.  Wisconsin property taxes are too high and they are regressive.  They penalize fixed income home owners, especially the elderly, people with disabilities, and couples who divorce.  The answer?  a)  blend property tax rates with income, which means that those with higher income will pay proportionally higher property taxes that they can afford, and those with lower income will have their property taxes, which they can ill afford, reduced; b) raise income taxes on those with incomes over $250,000, and move school funding further onto the income tax side.

It has been stunning that while a vigorous debate is occurring at the federal level over raising taxes on the top 2% of income earners, progressive activists and the Democratic party have been silent in Wisconsin on this issue.  This is especially troubling because Wisconsin has a virtually flat income tax barely differentiating the rate between lower and higher income earners.

So, I wish those running for MMSD school board well, and I will continue to advocate for progressive systems change such as the ideas I have outlined above, in my role at Systems Change Consulting.

For more information e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.


Why Special Needs Vouchers are Still a Bad Idea

Although Democrats in Wisconsin celebrated the victories of President Obama and Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin, Republicans rejoiced over recapturing the State Senate.  Republican control over the full legislature means many things, but as Gov. Walker recently signaled in his speech at the Reagan Library in California, among his top priorities is to expand Wisconsin’s voucher programs, including creation of a Special Needs Voucher program. During the last legislative session, Tea Party member Rep. Michelle Litjens sponsored AB 110, which would have created Special Needs Vouchers in Wisconsin.  Although she retired after just one term, the ascendency of Rep. Robin Vos to the speakership assures that his party will reintroduce some form of that legislation, which did pass the Assembly, but failed to pass the Wisconsin Senate, as there was sufficient moderate Republican opposition to allow Sen. Luther Olsen to decline to call a vote in the Senate Education Committee. As a key leader in Wisconsin’s special education movement, I was there every step of the way to raise awareness and help defeat AB 110 last session.  This included numerous meetings with Rep. Vos, Sen. Olsen, and American  Federation for Children (a/k/a school privatization through vouchers is our mission) lobbyists former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and former Republican spokesperson Brian Pleva. Among the reasons, a coalition of disability groups defeated AB 110 last session was that not a single disability group supported the measure.  Although the proponents of the bill traded on some parents’ legitimate frustrations with their children’s special education programs, these parents, whose children already attended private schools and therefore would receive no benefit from these vouchers, were not persuasive enough to get this bill through the Senate. Why are these vouchers such a bad idea, if parents have legitimate frustrations with their children’s special education in public school?

  • No voucher bills force private schools to accept children with disabilities.  In fact, Wisconsin’s current voucher programs have a long track record of failing to serve all but a few children with disabilities, which is currently being investigated by the US Dept. of Justice.
  • AB 110 did not even require that voucher schools provide children with disabilities any special education or related services such as physical therapy or assistive technology.  Even the somewhat improved Senate version, SB 486, sponsored by Sen. Vukmir, though it required implementation of the child’s IEP, failed to require private schools to employ any special educators or therapists.
  • Parents who choose a special needs voucher give up all the rights they have under state and federal special education law, the most powerful education law in the nation.  Thus, if things go wrong in the voucher school, a parent’s only recourse is to return their child to the public school they were unhappy with initially.
  • The voucher program takes money out of public schools, hurting the remaining children with disabilities, and worse yet, does not provide sufficient funding to educate children with disabilities in private school.
  • AB 110 had no income cap, or tuition cap.  This means that millionaires could have their children educated in private schools at state expense, and low income families could not use the vouchers because tuition would likely be higher than the amount of the voucher.
  • These vouchers will likely result in private schools creaming the least disabled students who cost the last to educate, thereby segregating the most disabled students in public schools, who have been stripped of funding by this program, to properly educate them.
  • These programs guarantee that once a child takes one of these vouchers, that child can keep it until they graduate or turn 21.  This means that regardless of whether the child needs special education anymore, unlike the public school requirement which calls for reevaluation of that status every 3 years and generally removes 1/3 of such students from special education upon reevaluation, once in private school, these children will maintain disability status at public expense for the rest of their educational career.

Hopefully, disability groups will coalesce once again to block passage of a special needs voucher program in Wisconsin.  To do, however, they will need to work closely with moderate Senate Republicans, including Senators Olsen, Schultz and Cowles.  The American Federation for Children will come bearing gifts for Wisconsin legislators who vote to create this program, so the battle will be fierce.

Solving the Achievement Gap

After my earlier blog post on the unimpressive School Report Card for Madison East High School, one commenter suggested that I propose possible solutions.  Others suggested that reliance on test scores does not give a complete picture of what is going on at any high school.  Both sets of comments are valid and will be addressed here.

Regarding the validity of test scores, while there is an abundance of evidence that the quality of a student’s education should be evidenced by far more than a single point in time test score, it is also important to note that the School Report Cards recently issued by the State of Wisconsin also contain other relevant data such as graduation rates, which simply cannot be dismissed so easily.  Moreover, many who fear focusing on test scores do so because they do not want teacher pay and evaluation to be based on single point in time testing.  While this point of view is valid, it does not address the following factors which must be considered if we want to improve the education of our neediest children:

  • While there are many fine teachers in our schools, those who choose to defend ALL teachers, do so ignoring the harsh reality that some teachers simply are not very good, as is true in any profession.
  • Teachers are not the only factor in a child’s education.  It is well known that there is a shortage of quality administrators and no organization succeeds without quality leadership.
  • The continual degradation of funding to our schools has increased class sizes and degraded the tools available (e.g., new books, technology, variety of learning tools) to teachers and their students.
  • Those who attack testing tend to avoid the tougher question: how would they evaluate the quality of schools?

So, tests should be improved, they should not be single point in time tests, and ALL school staff, from the District Administrator, to the classroom aides, should be factored into the credit and blame for good and bad educational results.  The bottom line is that if significant numbers of students are not graduating high school prepared for college and/or a career, the whole educational system has failed them.

But, what about non-test evaluation of results?  One of the best ways to evaluate educational success is whether schools are using a wide variety of tools to address the wide ranging needs and learning styles of their widely varied student body.  This past weekend I was fortunate to chaperone my son’s Madison East High School Engineering Club, as they took part in the Region IV conference of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Trymathlon and Robotics competition in Chicago. http://www.nsbe.org

It might surprise some to know that NSBE has nearly 30,000 members.  Its stated and critical mission is: “to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.” As its Executive Director, NAACP Vice President Carl Mack, put it so eloquently during his keynote address, “If we can put 100,000 kids in basketball camps, we can put 100,000 kids in engineering camps.” This mission and attitude is exactly what I witnessed as the Madison East High School team competed and participated in this conference after countless hours of after school preparation.

One thing test scores never measure is how well students work with each other, and in particular, with those who are different  from them.  Both competitions required team work and rewarded it.  Unlike the vast majority of high schools who competed at the NSBE regional conference, Madison East’s teams were multi-racial and multi-cultural.  It was beautiful to watch how they comfortably participated in the conference and how the vastly majority African-American participants welcomed Madison East’s integrated team.   This welcome became even more clear as Madison East, you know the one with the not very good School Report Card, came home with a second place finish in the Trymathlon (which includes testing in Math, Physics, and Black History) and a 1st place finish in the Robotics competition.

A look at the smiles on their faces after receiving their awards will not be found on any School Report Card, but educators and policy makers must find ways to recognize the achievements of students such as these, and teachers such as Cynthia Chin, whose dedication to these students and to closing the achievement gap, is truly remarkable.Image

Wisconsin’s New Law on the use of Seclusion and Restraint of School Children

After 12 years of advocacy, earlier this year, during perhaps the most contentious legislative session in Wisconsin history, that same acrimonious legislature unanimously passed an important bill to regulate and reduce the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint of school children.  This new law, 2011 Wis. Act 125, went into effect on September 1, 2012, after the Governor signed bill into law.  I was proud to have a private meeting with Gov. Walker prior to his signing the bill, and receive one of the pens he used to sign it.

As is true with almost every piece of legislation, the law involved some compromises in order to achieve passage.  Thus, it has many important protections and certain gaps.  This blog will explore those protections and gaps.

First, the important protections:

  • The new law applies to all children who attend Wisconsin public schools, as well as students who attend private schools or programs under contract with a public school district.  This includes charter schools.
  • All school employees, as well as those contracted by school districts, and student teachers, are covered by the law’s provisions.
  • Physical restraint includes any restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to freely move his or her head, body, arms, legs or head.
  • Seclusion means any involuntary confinement of a student, in a room or area from which she or he is prevented from leaving.  Thus, a door is not required to seclude a student.
  • Seclusion and restraint may only be used if the student’s behavior presents a clear, present, and imminent risk to the pupil or others.  These aversive techniques may only be used in a safe manner and for the shortest period of time until the imminent risk subsides.
  • Seclusion  and restraint may never be used for mere verbal disruptions.
  • Though the term prone restraints is not used, such restraints are clearly forbidden.
  • Chemical and mechanical restraints are forbidden unless authorized by a medical professional.
  • Restraints may only be used by trained staff, except in limited cases of unforeseen emergencies.
  • The first time seclusion or restraint is used on a student in special education, his or her Individualized Education Program (IEP) team must promptly meet to address the behavior in question with appropriate positive behavioral interventions and supports.  
  • An IEP may only contain seclusion and restraint provisions if a functional behavioral assessment has been done to provide positive behavioral supports for anticipated problematic behaviors.
  • Parents must be promptly notified of the use of seclusion and restraint on their child, and receive a thorough report.
  • School boards must receive an annual report on the instances of seclusion and restraint use in their school district by September 1st of each year.

Now for some of the gaps:

  • Students in private schools, including voucher schools, are not covered, unless they are placed their under contract with a school district.
  • Police officers in schools are not covered by the law.
  • There is no definition of “emergency” which can be invoked for untrained staff to restrain students.
  • There is no provision for the Wis. Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI) to certify training programs, or to limit the length of time for which a training qualifies school staff to restrain children.
  • The provision allowing seclusion and restraint in IEPs could result in overuse of these aversive techniques if parents are not well informed and good advocates for their children.
  • There is no requirement for school districts to report their seclusion and restraint use to the DPI, and thus no way for DPI to ensure that certain schools are not overusing these aversive techniques.

Despite these gaps, students have much more protection than prior to the passage of this law, and parents and educators have far more guidance of how to use and when NOT to use these aversive techniques.

You can find Systems Change Consulting’s full, Parent’s Guide to Wisconsin’s Law on the use of Seclusion and Restraint, on its web site:  www.systemschangeconsulting.com, by going to the publications tab.  That  guide also contains a link to the full statute.