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Walters: Politics likely to derail school funding panel

Members of the Legislature’s Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding may have drawn this year’s mission-impossible assignment.

The 16-member commission is made up of six Republican and three Democratic legislators, Green Bay and Grantsburg school superintendents, two Catholic schools administrators, a UW-Madison professor and two other public school advocates.

Its charge: Wisconsin spends $10.9 billion a year on K-12 schools—93 percent of which comes from state aid and property taxes. How should that system be changed?

“The school funding formula was first created in the 1970s and a review hasn’t been done in 20 years,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in announcing the commission.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald added, “With declining enrollments in more than half of the state’s school districts, a thorough analysis is necessary to ensure the process is transparent, equitable and delivers excellent schools.”

Commission cochairs are Senate Education Committee Chairman Luther Olsen, a 23-year veteran of the Legislature from Ripon, and Assembly Education Committee Vice Chairman Joel Kitchens, of Sturgeon Bay.

Why could the commission fail?

Election-year politics. Republican Gov. Scott Walker is campaigning to win a third term in November, and there is no one who speaks for the governor on the commission.

If Walker is re-elected, he could ignore any commission recommendations as he drafts his 2019-21 state budget early next year.

But one of 16 Democrats running for governor—Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma—is on the commission.

In a newsletter, Vinehout wrote after its first meeting, “The impression that the Commission existed only as an election-year ‘talking point’ was clearly on the minds of some members.”

Vinehout wants a new system of paying for K-12 schools.

“We need to move toward an ‘adequacy formula’ that takes into account fixed costs, recognizes that some students cost more to educate than others, and recognizes that school districts in different solutions face different costs,” Vinehout said.

“Our children and our schools are our future… Tinkering around edges is not enough.”

Another school-finance veteran, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, is not a commission member but is a Democratic candidate for Walker’s job.

So, if Evers is elected governor, he also could ignore any recommendations from a Republican-led commission.

Asked about the commission last week, Evers said, “The biggest question I have is, how are we going to pay for our growing commitment to multiple school systems?”

He was referring to the School Choice program, which used $249.6 million in tax dollars last year to pay for private-school tuition for 35,232 students. The number of Choice students more than doubled in 10 years.

Evers added, “Instead of debating what schools work better, our focus really should be on the worker shortage that is staring down Wisconsin’s economy.” The number of K-12 students—who are Wisconsin’s future workers—is lower than it was in 1995, he noted.

Outdated, complex aid formulas. In a newsletter, the nonprofit Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance noted the disparities that result from 1970s school-aid formulas that still base state aid on each district’s property values.

“In 2015, ‘property-rich’ Cedarburg had $725,000 per student in property value and received less than $3,000 per student” in general state aids, the alliance found.

“By contrast, ‘property poor’ Beloit had only $163,000 of taxable property per student and received $8,540 per student.”

As a result, the alliance found, “Property taxes were 63 percent of Cedarburg’s total revenues, but only 15 percent of Beloit’s.”

State limits on school spending. Governors and legislators since 1994 have limited school districts’ revenues, the alliance added. “Thus, while lawmakers directly control state aids, the revenue limit law allows them to indirectly control local levies as well.”

Major changes in K-12 education. In the 2006-07 school year, 23,406 students used the open enrollment program that lets parents have their child attend a public school outside their home district.

Ten years later, the number of open enrollment students statewide more than doubled—to 58,347—which prompted the redistribution of more than $387.8 million in school aids.

In an election year, will a Blue Ribbon Commission recommend ending—or changing—a program now used by one out of every 20 public school students?

A better bet would be the Brewers, who open spring training in five weeks, winning the World Series.

Thumbs up/down for Monday, Jan. 8

To expanding the police force. The city’s decision to add two police officers is well timed in the wake of several high-profile violent crimes last year. Janesville doesn’t have

a crime problem, but adding officers makes clear public safety is a top priority here. Twelve years ago, the department had 106 officers, but it’s been operating at only 102 officers in recent years. A larger police department should allow officers to more quickly respond to residents’ calls, including non-emergency ones that sometimes take too long to resolve. If the public perceives officers as responsive and listening to their concerns, Janesville is more likely to be known for having a high standard of living. The city council should strive to return officer numbers to 2006 levels, even if that means potentially trimming other areas of the budget.

To the end of St. Patrick bingo night. The school had reasons for ending this 44-year tradition, and we’re not quibbling with them. But we hope another entity—a church

preferably—will consider filling the void. Bingo raised $91,000 for St. Patrick last year, and that kind of cash can go a long ways in a classroom. St. Patrick’s enrollment has slipped in recent years, and people have different opinions about what went wrong. But church politics aside, Saturday night bingo was a wholesome, entertaining activity that people as young as 10 years old could enjoy. It had loyal attendees who probably would be willing to play at another location if the setup remained similar. Community and faith leaders should explore possibilities for continuing the Saturday night tradition and keep funds flowing to private education. Bingo, after all, never goes out of style.

To politicizing plan to close youth prisons. Most objective observers of the state’s management of the Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake prisons applauded Gov. Scott Walker’s $80

million plan to close the facilities amid an FBI investigation into abuses by prison staff. Some Democrats say Walker’s move is politically motivated, but of course these Democrats would have criticized Walker, too, if he had failed to call for closing the prisons. Walker’s plan to open smaller regional facilities makes good sense, and Democrats should acknowledge as much. The plan also calls for expanding a mental health facility in Madison for female prisoners. One complaint of the current setup is that families must travel too far to visit inmates, who families say feel isolated. Under the new plan, Rock County youth sent to prison presumably would stay closer to home, easing stress on them and their families.

To 2018 development possibilities. A big boom in new construction may still be another year off, as the former GM plant will likely take much of this year to be

demolished and prepped for new occupants. But we expect 2018 to nevertheless be decisive, including for SHINE Medical Technologies on the city’s south side. The startup company is building a prototype facility to demonstrate to prospective investors the viability of its process to make molybdenum-99 for medical uses. SHINE still needs to prove to taxpayers, who are subsidizing infrastructure improvements at the site, its technology is the real deal. This year, the city council also should work toward creating more space for burgeoning industries, such as those that have outgrown the Janesville Innovation Center. We’d hate to see any startup leave Janesville for want of adequate development options.

Skenazy: When parents can know everything about their kids

“Arkangel,” an episode of the Netflix show “Black Mirror” directed by Jodie Foster, had me cheering—which is a little odd, seeing as it is an incredibly horrifying tale of what can happen when parents get what some think they want: the chance to watch what their children are doing every minute and shield them from all misery and harm.

Sara is a little girl whose mom (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) implants an “Arkangel” chip in her, which allows Sara’s mom, whenever she tunes in on her tablet, to see what Sara sees. The chip also allows parents to pixelate any disturbing things they do not want their kids to see, including violence, blood—even two people arguing. So when the girl’s grandpa has a heart attack right in front of her, the girl can’t see him; she sees only pixels. As the trailer for the episode ominously puts it, “the key to good parenting is control.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, basically the same problems we’re seeing creeping up today in real life.

As we try to shield kids from all risk, frustration and unhappiness, we are depriving them of the chance to develop some street smarts and resilience. Nobody wants kids to be mercilessly bullied, but kids need a bit of exposure to the imperfect world. In fact, that’s why therapy for highly fearful people is called exposure therapy. By being gradually exposed to the thing they worry about or fear, people grow less sensitive to it and thus can go about their normal lives. It is the opposite of giving those fears control over your life.

The Arkangel device gives parents just a little more power than tech is actually giving parents today. Already there are apps that let you watch on a map where your child is walking, see what they’re looking at online, hear what’s going on around them in real time, read their texts, scan their Snapchat photos and even tell their temperature and heart rate from afar.

A new app being developed by a company called Kiddo promises to compare the food your children eat with the exercise their Fitbits show them getting. If calories consumed are greater than calories burned, the app then lets parents prescribe certain amounts of extra exertion: “That sundae means you have to do 23 more jumping jacks, Olivia!” We are told we can and must control everything our children do, see, think, worry about and, apparently, eat.

Parents are just starting to understand that with great power—in fact, with superpowers never before afforded to human beings—comes great angst. After all, if we can watch everything our kids do, must we? What about our relationships with the children? What about privacy? Are our kids our prisoners, to be constantly supervised? Our patients, to be constantly monitored? Or our pets, to be chipped?

That all feels wrong. Yet: What if something “bad” happens and we could have prevented it with more vigilance?

That’s the push the marketers are giving parents. Now that you can see all and prevent all, why wouldn’t you?

If you watch the “Black Mirror” episode, you’ll see, in Gothic detail, exactly where that could lead. But if you skip the show, all you have to do is try imagining what it would have been like if your mom could have seen everything you were doing from toddlerhood through adolescence and what that would have done to you—and her.

Then be strong when the tech folks insist that this or that child surveillance device will give parents “peace of mind.”