State Views: It's wrong to rewrite education policy in budget bill

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Julie Underwood & Julie F. Mead
Tuesday, May 26, 2015

We are deeply concerned by the education policy changes approved by the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance.

There is no research to show that any of these proposals would improve student learning. The changes continue a pattern of shifting tax dollars out of public schools in order to create a publicly funded entitlement to pay private school tuition. And finally, they were placed into the bill without sufficient notice and debate, subverting our democratic processes.

First, while the committee approved more funding for public education than Gov. Walker proposed, the result is no increase in funding for school year 2015-16 and a scant $100 more per student for 2016-17. Such a sum neglects the reality of rising costs and the needs of our children. For the first time since 1994, this two-year budget would provide no change in the revenue limits that freeze the amount school districts may spend. More concerning, Wisconsin’s per pupil spending will fall below the national average for the first time—ever.

The committee also expands the statewide voucher program. There is no evidence privatization results in better outcomes for kids. The result will be to pay the tuition for students who currently attend private school and who will continue to attend private school—their tuition will become the taxpayers’ bill rather than a private one. Additionally, the funds for the expansion would siphon an estimated $48 million away from public schools, decreasing the amount of money available for each and every school district in the state.

There is likewise no evidence to support the proposed special-education vouchers. The proposal would send $12,000 per student to private schools with no requirement that the schools have personnel trained to deliver special education and no requirement that the money be used to deliver special-education services. The proposed program would require parents to waive all of their rights under federal special-education law. Disability advocacy groups uniformly oppose the measure.

Neither is there evidence to indicate that school takeovers improve student learning. The takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools (and other districts in the future) removes control from a democratically elected school board while neglecting the real problem—the effects of poverty and high student mobility on student learning.

These changes represent a significant shift away from the state’s constitutional obligation to fund a system of uniform public schools. We strongly urge the Legislature to focus this budget on realizing that obligation and to remove all policy changes currently included in the bill. Educational policy changes this complex deserve a full public vetting. Burying them in a budget and permitting a single vote that also encompasses funding for roads, prisons, and all other functions of state government is a disservice to voters and the children of Wisconsin.

Ideas that cannot withstand the light of day and the transparency of the democratic process have no place in state law.

Julie Underwood is dean of the UW-Madison School of Education; email junderwood@education.wisc.edu. Julie F. Mead, is a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis with the UW-Madison School of Education; email jmead@education.wisc.edu.


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