Window opens suddenly, briefly to reform education

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Tim Cullen
Thursday, September 3, 2009

The announcement by Gov. Jim Doyle not to seek re-election but serve out his term, the tragic, but courageous incident involving Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the potential of qualifying for new federal education dollars make actual education reform in Milwaukee and Wisconsin a real possibility in the next year and one half.

The logjam created by the teachers union political activities (i.e. millions of dollars per election year spent almost entirely on behalf of Democrats) has led over the past 15 years to no educational policies put forward by Democrats and no educational policies put forward by Republicans. It is true that some individual legislators have had proposals, but they have not gone far in the legislative process.

The political ground rules in Madison have been too crassly partisan by both parties. It goes like this: If the Democrats control Madison, the Wisconsin Education Association Council gets what it wants. If Republicans control Madison, WEAC gets nothing that it wants. This is pretty disheartening to the many people across the political spectrum who actually want reform and progress.

Reformers have also been helped by President Obama’s secretary of Education calling one Wisconsin law on education “ridiculous” and that it currently makes Wisconsin ineligible for its share of the $4 billion of federal education money.

The aligned stars are the federal government’s $4 billion, Gov. Doyle’s lack of need for WEAC since he is not running again and the deserved big spike in the popularity of Mayor Barrett.

So we have a chance to make dramatic fixes to the Milwaukee Public School System, change Wisconsin law so teachers can be at least partially evaluated by student test scores and make long overdue changes in the K-12 educational funding formulas.

The funding formulas currently in place will, with no doubt in this writer’s mind, increase property taxes, class sizes and teacher layoffs.

One more entity needs to get its star aligned: the state Legislature. Democrats do need WEAC in 2010. But I also believe there are good people in the Legislature who I hope will grab this moment.

The goal of public education is clear and simple: improve student achievement. There are three major items that could help accomplish this:

--Better family structure and parental involvement in schools.

--Adequate funding without involving students in the unpopular reliance on property taxes, the most unpopular tax of all. Think about it. The funding of our prisons does not involve the property tax wars, but paying to educate our children does.

--Appreciated teachers who continue to stimulate students to improve and are evaluated and rewarded for outstanding performance.

These times for reform do not come often.

Tim Cullen is a Janesville School Board member and former state senator and Senate majority leader. He can be reached at (608) 754-8922; e-mail tcullen@janesville.k12.wi.us.

Last updated: 11:35 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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