US Education System Earns a C

Education Week is a non-partisan publication which produces an annual national and state by state report card on the health of our education system. Sadly, the 2017 report released today does not bring good news. Overall, for the third year in a row, the report gives the American education system a C grade, certainly nothing to brag about. Thirty-four states including my home state of Wisconsin, which earned merely a C+, fell into the C- through C+ grade range.


To  come up with that score, the report uses a multifaceted analysis, with 3 broad categories: K-12 Achievement; Chance for Success and School  Finance.

Chance for Success considers many critical factors in the lives of our children which help determine the probability that they will have a successful educational experience, including:

  • Family income
  • Parent education
  • Parent employment
  • English fluency
  • Preschool enrollment
  • Kindergarten enrollment
  • Elementary reading achievement
  • High school graduation rate
  • Young adult education
  • Adult education attainment
  • Annual income
  • Steady employment

School Finance also uses a multifaceted analysis including both equity and spending.

Wisconsin’s score breaks down as follows with its lowest score (D+) being in spending which raises serious questions as to how it will improve in the coming years:

Chance for Success: B (83.0)
*Early foundations: A- (90.3)
*School years: B- (79.9)
*Adult outcomes: B- (79.7)
K-12 Achievement: C (74.6)
*Status: C+ (76.7)
*Change: C- (69.9)
*Equity: C+ (79.2)
School Finance: C+ (79.1)
*Equity: B+ (89.2)
*Spending: D+ (69.0)

Unfortunately, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) means that each state gets to choose its path towards improvement. Given the stagnant lack of significant improvement over many years, skeptics have every reason  to be concerned that any significant progress will be made in the foreseeable future. As the Report Overview states:

The question that loomed over the celebrations hailing ESSA’s passage in December 2015 remains: What will more state control mean for historically overlooked groups of students?
Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction, recalled that when ESSA became law, an influential civil rights leader in his state tweeted that he’d lived through states’ rights and it hadn’t worked out very well, a reference to segregation.
“I took that to heart, I took it as a personal obligation” to make equity for all groups a central tenet of Wisconsin’s plan, Evers said.
Civil rights advocates are heartened by such sentiments, but caution that states have a lot of decisions left to make.
“We’re still kind of in the thick of it,” said Daria Hall, the interim vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, which advocates in support of poor and minority students. “There’s a lot of conversation going on right now, but I don’t think we’re at a point where we can definitively say here’s where that conversation is leading us, for good, bad, or other.”

Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers is running for re-election in April and faces 2 opponents, John Humphries and Lowell Holtz, so there will be a primary in February. Parents, advocates and voters who care about Wisconsin’s education  system should ask all 3 candidates how they intend to improve Wisconsin’s education system given these long standing mediocre results.

Unfortunately, the Wisconsin State Superintendent has no power over the state’s spending on education and does not write the laws that govern our education system, so parents, educators and advocates will need to pressure the Governor and state legislature to demand more funding and less diversion to private school voucher programs and charter schools which have failed to improve Wisconsin’s educational outcomes.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.


US Dept. of Education Addresses Disparities in Education Resources

In a landmark proclamation today, the U.S. Department of Education’s (USDOE) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) addressed states, school districts and all schools which receive federal funds to draw attention to disparities in access to educational resources.  This “Dear Colleague” letter makes clear that:

Chronic and widespread racial disparities in access to rigorous courses, academic programs, and extracurricular activities; stable workforces of effective teachers, leaders, and support staff; safe and appropriate school buildings and facilities; and modern technology and high-quality instructional materials further hinder the education of students of color today.

The letter addresses access to advanced courses and programs by pointing out that:

  • almost one in five black high school students attend a high school that does not offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, a higher proportion than any other racial group;
  • In the 2011-12 school year, English language learners represented five percent of high school students, but only two percent of the students enrolled in an AP course;
  • of the high schools serving the most black and Latino students in the 2011-12 school year, only 74 percent offered Algebra II and only 66 percent offered chemistry as compared to  schools serving the fewest black and Latino students, where 83 percent offered Algebra II courses and 78 percent offered chemistry;
  • while black and Latino students represented 16 percent and 21 percent, respectively, of high school enrollment in 2011-12, they were only 8 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of the students enrolled in calculus.
  • Schools serving the most black and Latino students are 1.5 times more likely to employ teachers who are newest to the profession as compared to schools serving the fewest of those students;
  • Schools with the most students of color are more likely to have temporary, portable buildings and permanent buildings with poorer building conditions, including poorly maintained exterior features such as lighting and walls;
  • Intradistrict and interdistrict funding disparities often mirror differences in the racial and socioeconomic demographics of schools, particularly when adjusted to take into consideration regional wage variations and extra costs often associated with educating low-income children, English language learners, and students with disabilities. These disparities are often a result of funding systems that allocate less State and local funds to high-poverty schools that frequently have more students of color, which can often be traced to a reliance on property tax revenue for school funding; and
  • teachers in high schools serving the highest percentage of black and Latino students during the 2011-12 school year were paid on average $1,913 less per year than their colleagues in other schools within the same district that serve the lowest percentage of black and Latino students.

So, how will OCR analyze discrimination complaints based on disparate allocation of resources?

First, it will examine if there is intentional discrimination, by asking the following questions:

1) Did the school district treat a student, or group of students, differently with respect to providing access to educational resources as compared to another similarly situated student, or group of students, of a different race, color, or national origin?

2) Can the school district articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, educational reason for the different treatment? If not, OCR could find that the district has intentionally discriminated on the basis of race. If yes, then

3) Is the allegedly nondiscriminatory reason a pretext for discrimination? If so, OCR would find the district has intentionally discriminated on the basis of race.

However, many facially neutral policies have a discriminatory disparate impact.  In such cases, OCR will apply the following analysis:

1) Does the school district have a facially neutral policy or practice that produces an adverse impact on students of a particular race, color, or national origin when compared to other students?

2) Can the school district demonstrate that the policy or practice is necessary to meet an important educational goal? In conducting the second step of this inquiry OCR will consider both the importance of the educational goal and the tightness of the fit between the goal and the policy or practice employed to achieve it. If the policy or practice is not necessary to serve an important educational goal, OCR would find that the school district has engaged in discrimination. If the policy or practice is necessary to serve an important educational goal, then OCR would ask

3) Are there comparably effective alternative policies or practices that would meet the school district’s stated educational goal with less of a discriminatory effect on the disproportionately affected racial group; or, is the identified justification a pretext for discrimination? If the answer to either question is yes, then OCR would find that the school district had engaged in discrimination. If no, then OCR would likely not find sufficient evidence to determine that the school district had engaged in discrimination.

One key question is how OCR will respond to a claim of lack of funds. USDOE’s response is clear:

Lack of funds does not preclude the duty to act under Title VI. OCR may consider how States, districts, and schools distribute whatever funds and resources are available, as well as how they act to provide additional or sufficient funds, to ensure equal educational opportunities.

Equal educational opportunity requires that all students, regardless of race, color, or national origin, have comparable access to the diverse range of courses, programs, and extracurricular activities offered in our Nation’s schools.

This letter even addresses extracurricular activities by stating that:

Extracurricular activities, especially those that have been shown to support college and career readiness and high academic rigor, must be offered on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Regarding technology, USDOE makes clear that:

OCR evaluates whether all students, regardless of race, have comparable access to the technological tools given to teachers and students, along with how those tools are supported and implemented.

USDOE strongly urges school districts to engage in a self-assessment to determine if these issues need to be addressed at the local level.  However, if OCR finds resource discrimination in schools, it will engage in the following possible remedies as applied to coursework, staffing, leadership, instructional materials, school facilities and technology.

  • Remedies must effectively end the discrimination and eliminate its effects.
  • Remedies must be implemented in a timeframe that is prompt and appropriate given the nature and difficulty of the corrective actions at issue.
  • OCR encourages school districts to work cooperatively with leaders, teachers, and support staff (and their unions and associations).

Education advocates have long hoped for such a strong declaration from the USDOE.  Now, they must push these issues at the state and local level and file complaints at the federal level if educational resource disparities persist. Time will tell if OCR will effectively remedy these longstanding problems, but today’s declaration is a very good start.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

The Synergy of Individual Advocacy & Systems Change

Recently, I had the opportunity to demonstrate, once again, the synergy of individual advocacy & systems change.  For nearly 20 years, I have been combating the schools to prison pipeline, as I wrote about over a year ago.  In January, I started writing a series of blogs and submitted them to the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) school board as its administrators developed a series of 4 drafts of what started out as a proposed revision of its discipline plan, but on my advice, became the new Behavior Education Plan, which will go into effect on September 1, 2014, and you can review here.  That plan had been sailing under the radar with relatively minimal public input, until my clients and I recently went public with an expulsion case which was a classic  example of zero tolerance run amok.  Fortunately, in one night, the school board ended my client’s expulsion, and then proceeded to approve the new Behavior Education Plan, in front of a packed auditorium, putting 2 nails in the coffin of zero tolerance.

As I testified to the school board that night, MMSD’s new, improved plan is not perfect, as it fails to set specific goals for reducing out of school discipline such as suspensions and expulsions, and accordingly fails to set specific goals for reducing the racial and disability disparities in both discipline and academic achievement which the district has long struggled to overcome.  In addition, I encouraged the school board to place advocates in each school to assist students and their parents through the discipline process as well as other challenges, including academic, which students may encounter.

Unfortunately, after I made that suggestion, the President of the MMSD School Board, publicly criticized my suggestion, as he does not view the discipline process as “adversarial,” which is fairly remarkable given his work as an attorney, but even more remarkable given that he truly does not understand the role that advocates actively play not only to improve outcomes for the children for whom they advocate, but to help change flawed systems for the better.

For nearly 30 years, my career as a civil rights attorney has involved taking individual cases and evolving them, when appropriate, into positive systems change.  This includes the struggle to finally pass a new law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint, which only occurred after representing many students harmed by this horrific practice and shedding the bright media light on it.

Any system that desires continuous improvement should recognize the value of advocacy as both an individual corrective tool, as well as a vehicle for identifying systemic problems. Dane County, Wisconsin, has recognized the value of having an internal ombudsman in its human services department to “ensure that people are getting appropriate services.”

While it is unclear whether MMSD can afford to place ombudsmen or advocates in each of its schools, it should certainly examine its budget to pilot such a program in schools with the highest discipline and academic problems.  Moreover, it could partner with outside agencies, which have existing advocacy services, such as Wisconsin Family Ties, which uses non-lawyer professional advocates, Wisconsin FACETS, which uses non-lawyer paid and volunteer advocates, and Disability Rights Wisconsin, which uses non-lawyer advocates with legal back-up and occasional direct lawyer involvement.  However, all of these agencies only work with children with disabilities, and I know of no agency providing school advocacy services to non-disabled students.

If the MMSD truly wants to ensure that its new Behavior Education Plan succeeds, it should actively engage with existing advocacy organizations, and work to obtain foundation support to fund advocates for non-disabled students.  Working together with the school district, on behalf of students, these advocates can correct natural human errors in the new system, and provide useful data to the MMSD administration so it can take corrective measures when repeated problems inevitably crop up.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Size of Government: We’re asking the Wrong Question

Since the Reagan revolution in 1980, Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in a never ending war over the size of government, with Democrats espousing a generally larger role for government in our lives, and Republicans generally supporting a smaller role for government in our lives.  Sadly, however, this is one case where the aphorism, “size matters,” is simply unhelpful.

I previously posted, The Fallacy in Government Budgeting, which asked,

Why is there a complete lack of budgeting analysis about how much it costs to achieve the clearly identified state and federal education standards that are written into law?

Thus, the right question is not about the size of government, or even any particular line item in the budget.

The right question is whether or not government is providing a valuable service with taxpayers’ hard earned money.

In fact, President Obama correctly framed this question in his first inaugural address when he stated:

“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”

A microeconomics analogy is worth consideration here.  When most people make a purchase, while they hopefully consider whether or not they can afford the purchase, their most important consideration is whether the price they are paying for the product or service provides a good value.  That is why we tend to buy the larger package because we pay less per ounce for the larger volume, i.e., we get a better value for the bulk purchase.

When it comes to government budgets, most taxpayers recognize that in order to live in a civilized society, government must take care of certain collective responsibilities, including transportation infrastructure, public health, national defense, police and fire protection, and the education of our children.  In general, when the public is satisfied with government service, most people do not mind paying taxes to support valuable government services.

This is exactly why, though a majority of Americans are concerned with the federal deficit, a majority do not want to reduce government spending.  In fact, a majority of Americans want to increase spending on Education, Public Schools and Veterans Benefits.  Indeed, contrary to what media pundits might have us believe, there is not a single category of the federal budget regarding which a majority of Americans want to see reduced spending.  In fact, a plurality of Americans want to see level or increased spending in every area of the federal budget except foreign aid.

There are two key components to changing the conversation.  First, government and those who support its helpful role in our lives, must do a better job informing the public of the valuable services it provides, as too many people simply take our roads, police, schools and the myriad of other government services which benefit all of us, for granted.

But mere pro-government advertising is not enough.  Those who support the role of government in our lives must also acknowledge, that like any large organization, there is always room for improvement.  Government must constantly strive to improve the way it functions and let the public know that it is doing so.

After the Katrina FEMA fiasco, the Obama Administration was committed to improving critical FEMA services, as stated by, Carlos Dávila, director of Business Management Division, FEMA Recovery Directorate,

“You have to question everything—not from a cynical standpoint but a critical thinking standpoint.  Agencies need to have folks with passion.”

A recent report appropriately suggests that,

It is fitting that agencies take stock of their priorities and activities, identify opportunities to improve how they deliver results, and use analytics to demonstrate they are meeting mission goals efficiently and could do so at less cost in the future.

It is ironic that since the Great Recession, despite the fact that the US bailed out financial institutions and automakers which were deemed too big to fail, we do not analyze government services in the same manner.  Can our society tolerate public schools that fail?  The answer should be a simple no we cannot allow our public schools to fail if we want to continue to live in a civilized society.  Yet, as I wrote in, The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern, our Congress continues to act in a dysfunctional manner which further erodes public confidence in government.

So let’s start asking about the value of government services and insist that the value of those services constantly improves.  Perhaps then, we can stop asking the wrong question, because size alone does not matter.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern

Our nation survived the Great Depression and it has survived the more recent Great Recession.  The question now is whether it will survive the Great Dysfunction.

While the focus of many pundits and politicians is now on Congress’ inability to pass a budget, resulting in one Continuing Resolution after another, invention of new phrases such as the Fiscal Cliff, and the current sequestration scare, a closer examination reveals that Congress has recently been unable to pass other basic legislation that is long past due.

In my own field of Education Advocacy, the most glaring example of the Great Dysfunction is the failure of Congress to reauthorize or amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The NCLB was passed with bipartisan support in 2001 under President George W. Bush.  While the basic goal of having no child fall behind in school was laudable, the law was deeply flawed in many ways, including:

  • failure to provide children who were left behind with any individual remedies;
  • utilizing blunt punishments against individual schools and whole school districts whose students were not doing well on certain performance measures, without providing the necessary support to remedy those failures; and
  • over-realiance on deeply flawed standardized tests to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing to educate children.

NCLB required that 100% of all school children be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, with dire consequences for schools and school districts that failed to meet that standard.  While that sounded nice to politicians in 2001, as 2014 loomed closer, it became exceedingly obvious that such a standard was simply impossible to meet.

NCLB was set up to be reauthorized with probable changes in 2007, with the understanding that this law was experimental and would need adjustments.  Indeed, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy worked side by side with President Bush to try to accomplish that goal prior to both of their departures from office, but due to the Great Dysfunction, they failed to achieve passage.

President Obama took up the mantle by renaming NCLB by its old name, the ESEA, and proposed sweeping changes in 2010.  In fact, the Senate Education Committee passed bi-partisan revisions in 2011.  But, once again, the Great Dysfunction took over and the bill did not pass.

Given the looming disastrous 2014 deadline, and the overriding power of the Great Dysfunction, the Obama Administration began to implement state by state waivers of the ESEA in 2012.  As of right now, 44 states along with Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have requested waivers.  The Dept. of Education has granted 34 states and the District of Columbia’s waiver requests.

Thus, the result of the Great Dysfunction in our schools is that the largest federal funding stream for our nation’s public schools is now implemented in at least 36 different ways through 35 different waivers and the remaining states continuing to operate under the now universally reviled NCLB.  While some members of Congress have chastised this overreach of Executive authority, there has simply been no progress to pass a revised ESEA.

A more detailed history of this debacle is available from the NY Times.

The question is, what will it take to emerge from the Great Dysfunction?  While many may say that we get the democracy we serve, Benjamin Disraeli put it well when he declared that,

The world is weary of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.

What we so desperately need are for our politicians to turn into statesmen, who recognize that the Great Dysfunction serves no one.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Time to Reform State Taxes–Pt. 2: Property Tax Reform

As news leaks out about Gov. Walker’s desire to cut Wisconsin income taxes, it is remarkable that there has been an absence of serious discussion about property tax reform for over 2 decades.  This is surprising given that property tax revenue is the single largest source of tax revenue in Wisconsin and many other states, providing critical funding for schools and other municipal and county based services, including police, fire, and public health services.

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson recognized that there was a property tax problem in Wisconsin when he attempted to put a lid on property taxes over 20 years ago by restructuring how Wisconsin funds schools and local services, instituting revenue caps, which deny school boards and local governmental bodies the power to raise sufficient revenue to fund critical programs.  At the time this system was instituted, the trade-off was that state government pledged to provide much greater support for schools (2/3 funding) and other local services.  Unfortunately, his successor, Gov. Jim Doyle, reneged on that pledge of more state support, and then in Wisconsin’s current budget, Gov. Scott Walker went one step further by reducing the revenue limits drastically (amounting to an $800 cut to schools alone in revenue authority on top of an $800 million state funding cut).

But that is only one side of the story.  What about the people who pay property taxes?  Are they being taxed fairly?

The simple answer is that property taxes are the most regressive tax that Wisconsin and most other states use.  This is for one basic reason.  Unlike centuries ago when property wealth virtually always correlated very closely with income wealth, we no longer live in such a world.  Many examples abound, including:

  • The elderly homeowner who has fully paid off her home, but the value has risen tremendously in the 50 years since she built the home, and now her only earnings are from Social Security.
  • The divorcee, whose divorce agreement left her with a home for which she can make her mortgage payments, but after 5 years of rising property values, she can no longer afford to stay in her home due to rising property taxes.
  • The formerly comfortable middle class family, whose primary bread winner lost his job just before the $7,500 property tax bill came due.

Most of us, myself included, have lost one or more neighbors such as these.  This creates unstable neighborhoods, one of the hallmarks that works against the creation of safe and sustainable places to raise healthy, happy and well educated children.

The problem, of course, is that while virtually everyone agrees that Wisconsin’s property taxes are too high, almost no politicians are willing to make the hard decision about how to replace the revenue which would be lost if we reduced property taxes for those whose incomes clearly cannot afford them.

The answer is actually quite simple.  We can make state property taxes equitable by adjusting them up or down based on the property owner’s income. Of course, many variations could be instituted, including the number of adjustment categories and the percentage of adjustment.  However, any such system can be aligned to be revenue neutral to taxpayers. Moreover, Wisconsin’s system of shared revenue which moves property tax revenue from property rich tax districts to property poor districts can continue to be utilized to provide equity in such a system so that property/income rich neighborhoods contribute to the ability of less wealthy neighborhoods’ ability to fund schools and local services.

Here is an example of how a simple 3 tier property tax system with income adjustments would work:

  • Betty is a 78 year old widow who has lived in the mid-sized 3 bedroom home she and her husband built 45 years ago for $12,000.  She lives in a safe middle class neighborhood with good schools, and her home, though fully paid for, is now valued at $325,000.  That valuation results in a $7,000 property tax liability, which she cannot afford because her only income is her monthly $700 Social Security check.  She will need to sell her home once she has exhausted all her savings by the end of this year because she cannot afford her property taxes. Under my proposal, taxpayers with Adjusted Gross Incomes under $50,000/year would have their property taxes reduced by 50%, reducing Betty’s property taxes to a manageable $3,500.
  • Joe and Tammy have the exact same property value and tax situation, but they both work and each earn $60,000/year for a total of $120,000/year in family income.  Under my proposal, taxpayers with Adjusted Gross Incomes between $50,000-$250,000 would receive no adjustment since those with Joe and Tammy’s income while certainly not wealthy, can afford to pay their property taxes.
  • Sally and Don live in a house with the same property value, but they both hold very high paying jobs, each earning $200,000/year.  Under my proposal, their property taxes would increase 50%, to $10,500, which they can still afford, and which offsets Betty’s discounted property taxes.  Keep in mind that their property tax payment is fully deductible under federal tax law so they will actually receive a larger federal tax deduction under this plan.

In sum, while property taxes are indeed too high, they remain a critical component to funding critical local programs and services, including public education, so eliminating them is not really an option without a steep hike in income or other taxes.  By making them equitable as I have suggested, we will allow more people to remain in their homes, helping to maintain and create stable neighborhoods, without any loss of revenue.

Now the question is whether political leaders will have the courage to adopt real Property Tax Reform, such as the system I have proposed.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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.