Thoughts on the Future of Public Education in Wisconsin

Last Monday I had the privilege of speaking at Support Oshkosh Students’ Future of Public Education Forum. It was a heck of a panel that demonstrated the value of public education to the community of Oshkosh, and the state of Wisconsin. In preparation I was asked to come up with the three most pressing education policy issues in Wisconsin. Here is what I came up with.

The first is fragmentation. The rise of non-district options in Wisconsin, including vouchers and independent charter schools, are challenging the very notion of what is public education in Wisconsin. Because these systems are funded and regulated differently, they challenge our traditional understanding of core concepts like accountability and equity. More problematic is the challenge they pose in terms of implementing positive change. K-12 education in Milwaukee is so complex that implementing reforms that improve aggregate outcomes, something that is needed, is nearly impossible. My fear is that we are going down the same path statewide without considering how these new governance challenges can be met. It is imperative that systems be in place to govern a fragmented system before further fragmentation occurs.

The second issue is the higher education identity crisis. What is the future role of the UW system in our state? My suspicion is that different audiences, including students, professors, leadership, and taxpayers, all answer this question differently. We need to find an acceptable equilibrium where the UW campuses are held accountable, but trusted to move forward proactively in a way that demonstrates their value to the state and its communities. Us professors need to spread the word about what we do, and policymakers need to stop pitting quality against affordability. I am optimistic that such an equilibrium can be reached, but it will take give on all sides of the debate over the system’s future.

The third issue is the Wisconsin K-12 funding system. The goals of equity and fairness are being undermined by the patchwork nature of our funding system, the reality of printout politics where legislators react to local impact as opposed to statewide goals, and the fiscal stress created by the recent historically low increases to per-pupil revenue limits. Further, property tax relief and education funding are two separate laudable goals and must be treated as such. Currently our system is a mess that no longer reflects the reality of public education in Wisconsin. This is not to say we need more funding, in fact changes need to be made before that question can be answered in a way that moves Wisconsin forward.

You may notice I did not mention the classroom. The things that actually impact student learning occur in classrooms and homes. However, if we cannot get the broad governance questions answered it is impossible for the things that really impact quality to occur at their optimal level.

I was struck by something Superintendent Tony Evers said at the panel on Monday. He said we spend too much time arguing about governance. I agree. Governance matters, but governance reform alone will not improve outcomes, getting governance right is only step one to enabling positive change. Unfortunately so many of the current governance reforms being discussed are designed to further fragment the system rather than enable a comprehensive and inclusive path forward. Worse yet, reforms like the Milwaukee Opportunity School District were build on a faulty premise that assumes one sector (or agency or political figure) is at fault for the challenges we face. Oversimplified solutions and punitive proposals may help score political points, but they waste valuable time and resources by dividing well-meaning people rather than uniting them.

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