Pushing Back Against Regressive Systems Change

When I started Systems Change Consulting, nearly 3 years ago, my intention was to use the expertise I have acquired over my 30 year professional career to help those interested in progressive systems change accomplish their goals to make the world a better place, particularly for those with the greatest needs. While I have had a great deal of success in this endeavor, I have also noticed that while living in Wisconsin during the past 5 years, many progressives are simply shaking their heads in wonder at the ever accelerating regressive direction our state is heading, decimating many of our fundamental institutions, such as public schools, state and local government, and the University of Wisconsin, which were designed to allow as many people as possible to live healthy and sustainable  lives.

Never before have I heard so many friends and colleagues consider leaving Wisconsin as they become convinced that resistance to the regressive laws and policies put in place over the past 5 years is futile. Perhaps, some wonder, that is the plan of those in power, to simply change the face of Wisconsin, by showing those who do not care for the direction our state is heading, the exit door.

While I have no easy answers, history suggests that there has never been a political party that has stayed in power forever. Indeed, the more the party in power acts like it will maintain its majority forever, the less likely it will stay in power, because over time, it will create disillusionment amongst enough of its supporters that the pendulum will swing in the other direction.

Wisconsin has long been a state of extreme ideologues. Shortly after World War 2, Wisconsin elected Sen. Joe McCarthy, who wreaked havoc on many lives with his anti-communist crusade, until he was finally discredited in 1954, and died at the young age of 48, in 1957, of hepatitis, which was widely assumed to have been caused or at least exacerbated by his alcohol abuse. This tragic chapter of American history, ironically, came on the heels of the progressive creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


McCarthy’s death was followed by Wisconsin’s election of one of the greatest environmentalists of his era, Gaylord Nelson, who was first elected Governor in 1958, and then served as a U.S. Senator from 1963-1981, founding Earth Day in 1970.

Currently, Wisconsin’s U.S. Senators, Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson, have been rated as the most ideologically split Senators of any state in the country. Sen. Johnson is running for re-election in 2016 against the progressive former Senator Russ Feingold.

This brief political history demonstrates that political power is in constant flux. Therefore, political engagement provides constant opportunities for change, despite the frequent frustration that lack of immediate success may bring.

How can progressives push back? Stick to the fundamentals of progressive systems change which a review of what I have written since starting Systems Change Consulting includes:


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.


Systems Change Consulting: Top 10 blog posts to-date

After nearly 2 years of blogging about how to accomplish progressive systems change, I thought my readers would be interested to know which of my posts have drawn the most views. Here is a list of my 10 most viewed posts, each of which is hot linked so you click them and read them.

#1.  Wisconsin’s New Law on the Seclusion and Restraint of Children: posted Nov. 7, 2012, but still getting active views because the information is still current and the problem persists.

#2.  Putting an End to the School to Prison Pipeline: posted Jan. 9, 2013, and also continues to get active views due to the intractable nature of this problem.

#3 (tie).  When Right and Wrong are not the Answer: posted July 23, 2014, my plea for peace in the midst of the Gaza crisis resonated around the world including in the Middle East amongst both Israelis and Palestinians.

#3 (tie). Why I Decided NOT to Run for School Board: posted Nov. 30, 2012, holds the record for the most views on the day it was released.

#5. Why Special Needs Vouchers are Still a Bad Idea: posted Nov. 20, 2012, is still read due to the school privatization movements never ending fight to strip rights from children with disabilities.

#6. Doing the Right Thing: Dropping Racist Mascots: posted May 23, 2013, another issue that just won’t go away.

#7. The Giving Tree Builds Community: posted August 16, 2013, because systems change requires community building.

#8. Stop Paternalizing Children with Disabilities: posted May 7, 2014, critiquing Louisiana’s efforts to dumb down the education of children with disabilities.

#9. Marriage Equality: Dancing Together Builds Community: posted Oct. 23, 2013, on the cusp of perhaps the most significant cultural change in my lifetime.

#10: Solving the Achievement Gap: posted Nov. 13, 2012, focusing on yet another intractable problem.

There are 82 other posts, so if you’re interested in the others, just go to the home page on my blog, where they are all available in chronological order with the most recent post on top.

I will continue to provide helpful tips on how to accomplish effective, progressive, systems change. For more information on the services I provide, please visit my web site, Systems Change Consulting, which also has contact information.

Systems Change Advocacy: The Personal Touch

Earlier this year, I published, How Systems Change Happens.  While I still consider that important advice for conducting effective systems change advocacy, earlier this week, I realized that I left out one critical element which is especially important to systems change advocates working on a tight budget: The Personal Touch.

One should never underestimate the importance of connecting with legislators or other important decision makers on a personal level.  Although they may hold lofty offices, they are still human beings with thoughts and feelings just like all of us. Moreover, just like everyone else, they are more likely to respond favorably to people with whom they have a positive personal connection.

Earlier this week, in four different ways, I experienced how my personal connections with members of Congress, helped improve my advocacy for Middle East peace on behalf of J Street.

  • During my meeting with Cong. Mark Pocan, I was able to open up the meeting with friendly references to the fact that our dogs do not get along and we kidded each other about whether one of our dogs belonged to the other party.  While this may seem trivial, these are the types of connections that helped me convince him over 12 years ago when he was a member of the Wisconsin Assembly to be the first and only sponsor of our bill to eliminate the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint on school children.  His brave act led to the bill’s passage 12 years later as I previously described in my post on:  Wisconsin’s New Law on the use of Seclusion and Restraint of School Children.
  • Next, I met with Cong. Gwen Moore, whom I have known since early in my career when I was engaged in advocacy on behalf of the elderly and she was in the Wisconsin legislature.  Our personal connection became quite clear when rather than the standard handshake, she gave me a big hug when she greeted me.  Not only is she a strong J Street supporter, but she agreed to work with me on creating dialogue between J Street and black pastors in Milwaukee.
  • J Street next scheduled a meeting for me with Cong. William Lacy Clay.  In this case, since he is from St. Louis, I reached out to my in-laws from St. Louis to see if they knew anything about him that would provide me with that critical personal touch in our meeting.  As fate would have it, my father-in-law e-mailed me right before the meeting to inform me that he used to rent his vacation house to Cong. Clay’s family.  During introductions, I brought that up, which brought out a big smile from Cong. Clay and eased us into a very successful meeting.
  • Finally, I met with Sen. Tammy Baldwin, whom I have known since she was in law school and applied for a job where I then worked at the Center for Public Representation.  We didn’t hire her because we rightly knew that she was destined for a career in politics, but I wisely maintained a personal connection with her during her years in the Wisconsin Assembly, followed by her years in the US House of Representatives.  With pleasure, I received my second Congressional hug of the day from Sen. Baldwin, and I was able to thank her for signing an important letter to President Obama, encouraged by J Street and signed by 27 Senators calling for a “Sustained, US Diplomatic Initiative” for Two-State Solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Personal connections with key decision makers must be earned, but the work is worthwhile as those connections make a difference, especially for non-profits going up against well financed opponents when trying to engage in systems change.

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

Putting an End to the School to Prison Pipeline

One of the saddest phrases in American education is, Schools to Prison Pipeline. The very concept that schools are actively sending their students to prison is so fundamentally contrary to everything public education should stand for that every American should cry foul and insist that this shameful practice end.  Of course, as is true with many challenging societal problems, ending a shameful practice is easier said than done.

But first, let’s make sure we understand what the Schools to Prison Pipeline is, and how bad the situation has become.  The ACLU’s Racial Justice Project defines the Schools to Prison Pipeline as:

The “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  This pipeline reflects the prioritization of incarceration over education.

A variety of methods are used by too many schools, which contribute to this human disaster.  They include:

  • Overuse of zero tolerance of even minor school infractions;
  • Increased reliance on police in schools, resulting in a direct line from a school infraction to juvenile justice prosecution; and
  • Increased use of disciplinary alternative schools, which like prisons, rarely teach students how to behave properly, and instead congregate children with problematic behavior who teach each other how to improve their misbehavior.

Perhaps the most glaring statistic is the remarkable number of students who are suspended in many school districts.  Let’s look at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), where the problem is rampant.  The most recent suspension data is from the 2010-11 school year.  In that year, 18,797 or 23.2% of MPS’ students were suspended, though that number may be low as MPS has been caught submitting false lower numbers to the US Office of Civil Rights in the past.

Even more troubling is that certain populations of students are suspended at significantly  higher rates by MPS.

  • 33.8% of African-American students were suspended;
  • 44.4% of students with disabilities were suspended.

It is beyond question that,

Higher suspension rates were found to be correlated with lower graduation rates.

Congress has looked at this issue, but sadly has failed to act.  A House Judiciary Committee hearing received a report in 2009 which clearly set forth that:

A dropout crisis exists for minority and economically disadvantaged children in every state. African- American males are incarcerated at a rate six times that of White males and Hispanic males more than double that rate according to recent studies published by the U.S. Department of Justice. The significance of this statistic is that African-American males have the lowest graduation rate of any ethnic group.

Some may shake their heads and simply argue that in order to save well behaved students, we must lock up those who do not behave well.  But this logic has serious flaws.

  • There are solutions to the Schools to Prison Pipeline, including Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)which fortunately now has a national support center.   A faithfully implemented, adequately funded system of PBIS has shown not only reduction in disciplinary problems, but a correlated increase in academic success.
  • From a selfish point of view, those who are concerned about crime should be concerned about reducing crime so they do not become victims of crime.
  • Recidivism rates are very high.  While there is no commonly accepted measure of juvenile recidivism, a recent Milwaukee County study showed juvenile recidivism rates hovering between 41-58%.

So the bottom line question is whether or not we want to continue our failed unofficial School to Prison Pipeline policy and continue to suspend and incarcerate students who are disproportionately African-American students and students with disabilities or shift gears and education them properly with sufficient resources to become productive citizens.  The answer should be obvious.  Let’s put an end to the School to Prison Pipeline NOW.

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

How Systems Change Happens

Having created progressive systems change in a variety of public policy arenas for over 27 years, many have asked me how I do it.  There is no formula for achieving systems change.  But my experience tells me that effective progressive  systems change only happens if the following elements are present:

  • Have the truth on your side.  That requires assembling data and stories that back your cause.  We did this in the 12 year campaign to pass a law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint on children in Wisconsin’s public schools.
  • Educate those who need the change, the media, and those who are the decision makers required to make the change.  We accomplished this in 2011 by killing the Special Needs Voucher bill in Wisconsin despite a massive lobbying effort by the American Federation for Children (otherwise known as the lobbying arm of US Private Schools).
  • Organize supporters (or opponents, depending on the issue).  Especially when confronting powerful special interests, those seeking progressive systems change must have as many organized allies as possible.  Convincing the Wisconsin legislature to add key special education provisions to last term’s Read to Lead legislation required great organization amongst progressive reading and disability groups.
  • Litigate when necessary.  The courts are the oft forgotten branch of systems change.  Though years of unhelpful decisions often make systems change difficult in the courts, it still happens.  Our class action settlement with the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI), in our case against Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), created systems change in both of those massive bureaucracies.
  • Be Persistent.  Systems change is not for faint of heart.  Nor is it for those who are not willing and able to work hard for many years.  But remember, lack of persistence allows the other side to rule the day.  It took us 10 years to get a hearing on our seclusion and restraint bill, and 12 years to pass it.  We could have quit at any time before that and Wisconsin would continue not to have this important legislation.
  • Use all the tools above, but use them strategically and effectively.  Those who want to fight powerful, well-financed special interests, must be willing and able to use the truth, educate all concerned, organize well, litigate enough of the right cases, and be persistent.  Moreover, they must do so strategically and effectively.  Unprepared, ill-equipped advocates may cause more harm than good while fighting for a righteous cause.  Getting Gov. Walker’s signature on our seclusion and restraint legislation required using all of these tools including strong media work and publishing Out of Darkness…Into the Light. 

Many despair of the never ending legitimately awful things monied interests have foisted on the public.  But there is nothing new about the rich and powerful exerting their will on those less wealthy and powerful than them.  The challenge for those of us who want the world to be a better place is to apply these systems change principles consistently to push back on the never ending power grab by the select few.


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

Violence Begets Violence–Time to Repeal the 2nd Amendment

Like most Americans, ever since the massacre at Sandy Hook, the issue of the place of guns in American society has been ever present in my mind.  President Obama declared that we must change, but he has yet to offer concrete changes.  Sen. Feinstein has introduced a bill to outlaw assault weapons prospectively, which would do nothing to get those weapons off our streets.  The NRA says it will propose concrete actions, but has yet to offer any particulars.

While politicians and pundits discuss ways to regulate lethal weapons, at Systems Change Consulting, our purpose is to change systems so that we do not have the same tired conversations again and again, resulting in remaining mired in an unsatisfactory status quo.  It would be nice to think that legislation would be sufficient to  end the violence which guns have wrought on American society.  Yes, we do have more gun related deaths than any country in the world, other than Mexico, with nearly 10,000 homicides committed in the US in the most recent reporting year.

Our Supreme Court has completely distorted this simple amendment which reads:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Not only is this Amendment an antiquated artifact directly resulting from the Colonial revolution against the British, but the Supreme Court ruled in its 2008 decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, that the militia clause has nothing to do with the right of the people to bear arms.  In that case, the Supreme Court found that the District of Columbia’s handgun and trigger lock ban violated the 2nd Amendment.

The Supreme Court then expanded that misguided logic in 2010, in its McDonald v. Chicago decision applying the 2nd Amendment to state and local governments, declaring the City of Chicago’s handgun ban unconstitutional.

With Supreme Court decisions like these, and the never ending onslaught of violence  and death caused by guns, it is time for this nation to repeal the 2nd Amendment.

Some may declare that such a proposal is unrealistic.  That may be true, given the strength of the NRA and the inherent difficulties of amending our Constitution, as any amendment must be passed by 2/3 of the members of both Houses of Congress, and then approved by 3/4 of the states.  This is, indeed, challenging.

However, if Sandy Hook is the wake up call that our nation needs to get out of our cycle of violence begetting more violence, then now is probably the best time to repeal the 2nd Amendment.  Even if the amendment is not ultimately ratified, it will put the NRA on the defensive and allow ever stronger gun control legislation to pass and may even cause the Supreme Court to re-think its most recent decisions which make most sensible gun control legislation virtually impossible.

Since amending the Constitution is necessarily a long and difficult process, let me suggest one other piece of legislation that has yet to be raised and should raise no Constitutional concerns.  While the 2nd Amendment arguably allows citizens to own weapons, there is no Constitutional right to manufacture lethal weapons.  So, let’s start by banning the manufacture and importation of assault weapons.  It is too easy to buy these weapons.  You can even do it on-line from Tactical Arms Manufacturer, which brags on its web site that its assault weapons, the same ones used by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook, are Made in the USA.

So, let’s get serious about stopping the cycle of violence.  Let’s repeal the 2nd Amendment and in the mean time ban the manufacture and importation of assault weapons in the USA.

Or, we could just follow this simple 12 step program.


For more information 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.

Systems Change Consulting starts a blog

Systems Change Consulting is starting a blog to let both current and potential clients know how our consulting and training services can help implement the systemic change they are seeking.

This new consulting and training firm provides local, statewide, and national consulting and training for individuals, non-profits, and public entities interested in making progressive systems change.  Services include root cause analysis to identify nature of problem and likely systemic solutions; creating multi-pronged plans to effect systemic change to address identified problems with long lasting solutions; providing consultation and training, as well as direct support with legislative and administrative agency lobbying, legislative and regulatory drafting, systemic litigation, traditional and social media campaigns, grassroots and professional training, and education publications for consumers and professionals, in the areas of Civil Rights, Disability Rights, General and Special Education, combating abuse and neglect of vulnerable populations, and non-profit organizational management and board development and governance.

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a public interest civil rights attorney with a strong statewide and national reputation developed over the past 27 years, is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and is the Principal of this firm.  You may contact him with inquiries for consultation and training services at spitznick@tds.net or 608-206-7164.

Systems Change Consulting has a web site under contruction which will go live soon.