Speaking Budgeting: A Look at the Proposed Wisconsin Education Budget

Every I Fall I teach budgeting and I an unashamed to say it is by favorite course (well methods is pretty great too). Budgets are the way in which a public executive communicates his or her policy goals, asserts control over the bureaucracy, and communicates with citizens. Budgets are also intimidating, but learning to navigate them is an essential skill for any public employee. Why? If you can speak budget you know where the money is coming from, and you know where the money is going. You also know the executive’s priorities and expectations. And you know all of this firsthand, no translation required. In fact, you will probably be the one translating for others, which is a powerful position to be in. Ok, enough about the virtues of budgeting, onto the real thing.

Last week Governor Scott Walker released his executive budget (you can read all 644 pages of it on the Department of Administration website) and there is quite a lot to discuss. But given my research interests I will focus on the Public Instruction (DPI) budget. I find in Wisconsin the DPI budget is the most interesting due its size, and the frequent ideological differences between its head and the Governor. Here are the specific things worth mentioning:

Increasing per-pupil aid.  To paraphrase Joe Biden, this is a big deal. School districts across Wisconsin are experiencing fiscal stress, and additional aid districts can actually spend is a welcome change.

Does equity matter? The additional per-pupil aid does not go through the equalization aid formula. Funding increases this way is a developing trend, and though it sounds boring (and an argument can be made that funding increases this way is simpler) I worry about equity. The goal of school finance in Wisconsin has long been to equalize taxing capacity. Increasing funding outside the aid formula prioritizes equal increases over equitable increases.

Tying aid to increased health care contributions. Requiring districts be in “compliance” with Act 10 as a condition of increasing aid is just strange. What the Governor is actually proposing is that districts not previously required to raise employee healthcare contributions to 12 percent do so. It is not like these districts are currently violating the law. As I told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “[P]lacing new mandates limiting the ability for school districts to make compensation decisions runs counter to the management goals of Act 10.”

Performance funding for absenteeism. This is not getting much attention, but there is a potential $50,000 of funding for schools that reduce absenteeism. This reads like something that will not make the final cut, but it is an interesting idea that shows growing concern for the negative impact of absenteeism.

Lifetime teaching licenses. Another interesting one. I certainly know teachers who complain about the usefulness of the renewal process, but this is just anecdote. The proposal puts a lot of faith in the state’s educator effectiveness system. Doubt this makes it through.

“Milwaukee Education Performance Funding.” A potential $100 per-pupil in schools that do well on the state report card. I like that all publicly funded Milwaukee schools are eligible, it reflects the reality that public education in Milwaukee is actually a fragmented network of service providers (that is a shameless plug for my book project, stay tuned). I like the idea of something positive for Milwaukee schools rather than sanctions.

Per-pupil funding increases for Choice. It seems logical to me that publicly funded students across the spectrum get the same increase. It is a necessary step towards normalizing the Milwaukee school network.

“Private School Fiscal Agent.” Seems the folks complaining about MPS being the fiscal agent for federal funding for private schools are being heard. This is contingent on a federal waiver and I do not see it happening (and really do not think it is a good idea).

“School Report Card Reforms.” More reporting for schools is not a bad thing. But I hope tinkering with the report card is not a regular occurrence, there is value to stable indicators.

“School District Flexibilities.” This is a fascinating section (page 445). Districts would longer have to meet minimal hours of instruction requirements, hold monthly school board meetings, and post the time and date of their annual school board meetings. Clearly this is an effort to reduce regulations perceived as onerous, but I bet the minimal hours of instruction proposal will get people fired up. I also feel school boards provide a valuable function and reflexively do not like the idea of not requiring them to meet….but perhaps there is a rationale here of which I am not aware.

There is more in the DPI budget of course, but these are the items that caught my eye. As Alan Borsuk wrote on Sunday, it is a fairly tame budget request. But I do think it reflects subtle changes in education values in our state. There is less focus on equity, more normalization of school choice, more erosion of local control (at least when it comes to employee compensation), and increased emphasis on outputs over inputs.

My Brief Take on the DeVos Hearing

Confession, I did not watch the Betsy DeVos hearing. I spent the time scraping ice off of my driveway and playing Raffi songs on the guitar with my son. Political theatre just does not do it for me. I am of the opinion that anything substantial about DeVos was known prior to the hearing. That said, I do stay active on twitter and did track the various reactions from DeVos fans and skeptics. I think deep breaths are required here.

I do have concerns about DeVos. She does not have public education experience, which makes me wonder how she will go about managing the Department of Education. She is a non-traditional pick for sure. But my biggest concern about DeVos is the same concern I have with all of Trump’s nominees: There willingness to serve a Trump administration. Maybe this is not fair, but the reality of the Trump presidency is causing me considerable anxiety. But back to DeVos.

I worked for many years in the school choice movement, and not once did I come across advocates who did not legitimately care about students. Not once did I see advocates who put profit or power ahead of the interests of children. Yes, I saw a few school leaders who were crooks (the justice system usually confirmed my take). Yes, I saw and was involved in policy decisions that were well intentioned, but misguided. But DeVos, and other leaders of the school choice movement are not anti-accountability, are not religious zealots, and are not out to profit off the backs of low-income children. Such rhetoric is counterproductive. We can disagree about DeVos’s qualifications and abilities, but dismissing the legitimacy of the motives of our political opponents makes substantive debate impossible. It is toxic in a functioning democracy, and becoming all too common.

There are plenty of folks having a substantive debate over DeVos. To them I say kudos.

Lessons from Three and a Half Years in Academia

I am in the middle of my third year in academia and I continue to learn things about the profession, the field of Public Administration (PA), and myself. So what have I learned?

First off, academia is a place where rejection and failure is an everyday occurrence. Journal articles, job applications, grant proposals, fellowships, book proposals…you name it, I’ve been rejected for it. This is not a bad thing. Many a project of mine has improved because of a rejection. I’ve also dodged a few bullets, in hindsight, due to rejection. It is something that is part of academia, and if you are not being rejected for things, you are probably not trying hard enough. During my first class in my doctoral program a great professor of mine told the class that you need thick skin to survive in academia. She was right, and it is advice I pass on to my students.

Second, academia is not always a meritocracy, pedigree often matters a great deal more than production. Though I have seen this play out indirectly here and there, it really hit me directly when I experienced a phony interview. I admit the triumph of pedigree over production frustrates me, especially given my satisfaction with the quality of the Ph.D. program from which I graduated. But, it also makes me appreciate organizations like ASPA and AEI/Fordham who gave me a shot based on my record when it would have been easy to dismiss me based on my non-R1 affiliation. It also makes me appreciate my institution, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which has always made me feel wanted. It is also great to have my work welcomed in international journals, some of the pieces I am most proud of were published across the pond.

Which brings me to my third observation; the grass is not always greener. Academics job hop, it is how you get raises, prestige, and additional resources. For those of us with families, or those whose research is focused on making a local impact, this can be problematic. I’ve been tempted, admittedly, but I think a rule is your situation is never as bad as you think, and that other place is never as great as it appears (Easy for me to say I know, seeing as I have never switched academic jobs).

Fourth, the academy, and PA, loves to pigeonhole scholars. People have looked at my record and asked me, are you urban, nonprofit, public management, or education? My answer is, yes, I am a governance scholar. Governance is changing, and to truly make sense of it we need to study the nonprofit sector, we need to study local and state government, and yes, that includes the most expensive function of state and local government: Education. This answer has failed to impress more than a few hiring committees and journal editors (see second paragraph), but it is what I am and I am good with it (At ASPA this year I have a paper that connects all these pieces, come see me present!). Frankly, I think keeping our field relevant demands more of us take a broader approach…but I am heavily influenced by my practitioner experience, which is not always welcomed in the academy.

Lastly, I do miss my practitioner days. I miss having a daily impact on state and local government. Some of my most satisfying work in the academy has been things that will not help me obtain tenure or prestige, and will never show up on a CV. Helping MPA graduates with a work problem, answering a school funding question, crunching data for a practitioner, and helping my mid-service students advance their careers (which in turn aids the public good), brings me immense satisfaction.

I am sure I will continue to learn as my experience in the academy grows. All said, the experience has been professionally and personally rewarding, it is hard to imagine doing anything else.

Education Policy and Thought Leaders

Back in my advocacy days nothing would bug my colleagues and I more than some national “thought leader” making some sweeping statement about the success or failure of vouchers or charters in Wisconsin. Why did it drive us so nuts? Every morning we would go about the hard day-to-day work of education reform advocacy. This involved putting out fires, visiting schools, lobbying, conducting research, working with state agencies, building constituencies, managing complex relationships, and lots of busy work. We had extremely effective leadership and when everything came together it was quite impressive. In our minds what we did was real and impactful, whereas thought leaders debated one another, made headlines, and ultimately had minimal impact on actual policy.

Who were the thought leaders? Academics, think-tank types, pundits, prolific social media users, bloggers, and the like. These days I find myself writing blog posts, conducting research, tweeting, and following the debates (and even engaging) within the community of thought leaders. Uh oh. I admit feeling a bit conflicted about my engagement as a though leader type. I am thinking this conflict, as well as my current and past positions as I follow a discussion among education scholars regarding Betsy DeVos, and the evidence for and against voucher and charter policies. As is usual in these debates, both sides of the argument believe the evidence is on their side, while the other side is being ideological.

I tend to disagree with the whole premise of the debate. Last week I tweeted “Do vouchers work? Do charters work? Don’t accept simple yes or no, context like design, public acceptance, policy goals are everything.” The tweet was a reaction to the misalignment between the reality of school choice policies and the way we study them. I see the value of random control trials, I really do, but the reality of school choice is much more complex than what these studies prove (or disprove). I argue the value of a voucher or a choice is dependent on the organizations involved, making school choice work means using the schools as the unit of analysis. But I could be wrong, I have been before!

More important, and something I learned while working in Milwaukee, are values. K-12 education is the most expensive function of state and local government; it impacts everyone as a student, parent, or taxpayer. As I preach in my budgeting course, how society chooses to spend its resources is a reflection of its values and priorities. So what are our priorities in K-12 education? Test scores, attainment, safety, choice in and of itself, religion, permanence, transparency, accountability, equity, customer satisfaction, entrepreneurial activity? I think the answer to the question differs by place, by time, and by audience. This poses a problem for us scholars and (gulp) thought leaders searching for definitive answers. They may not exist. So what to do?

Personally I think there is value to Robert Pondiscio’s call for humility, i.e. recognizing that we do not know what we do not know. I also enjoy applying public administration theories of the hollow state and network governance to K-12 education. Finally, I take great interest in school boards, whom I suspect can serve as a legitimizing agent in the sea of paradox that is education policy.

So as frustrating as thought leaders can be, it is good that well-meaning talented people are engaging in education reform discussions. I have come to realize that their work is impactful in setting policy agendas, research agendas, and informing the broader discussion of K-12 education policy.  The more voices the better.


Reactions from the Marquette Voucher Discussion

While driving home from Marquette’s voucher forum yesterday I could not help but wonder what year it was. Statements were made about segregation, discrepancies in special needs services, the need for increased accountability, funding differences, picking and choosing students, research credibility, the funding of systems vs. the funding of students, ALEC, the legitimacy of parental decision making, expulsion rates, etc. The only signal that this discussion was not occurring in 2005 was that reference was made to MPCP students taking the Wisconsin state exams, and nobody brought up the now non-existent MPCP enrollment cap.

This is not to say the discussion was not interesting. It was. Both Scott Jensen and Julie Underwood forcefully defended their positions, and there is much value to having policy discussions such as these. There were a couple of specific issues brought up that merit further elaboration:

  • Jensen and Underwood gave very different versions of the birth of the MPCP. Jensen was specific, referencing a discussion between Rep. Polly Williams and Gov. Tommy Thompson, while Underwood framed voucher policy through a discussion of the Jim Crow-era segregation academies and ALEC model legislation. In reality the origins of the MPCP are far more complex than a single meeting or piece of model legislation. You can read my take here if interested, and I recommend Jack Dougherty’s More than One Struggle for another perspective. My main takeaway here is that one’s views of the MPCP’s origins (as well as its trajectory) are dependent on their vision for public education.
  • Jensen stated that the MPCP saves money because the value of a voucher is $7,353, compared to around $14,000 for MPS. These two numbers are not comparable. I argue the appropriate comparison is the MPS revenue limit, which is about $10,450.18. If you feel like going down that rabbit hole, I write more about it here, but like seemingly every aspect of the MPCP the reality is more complex than the talking point.

Back to the big picture.   Both Jenson and Underwood spoke of the need for accountability, better analytics, and more people across all education sectors to step-up and realize that every child deserves a great education. Both were well meaning and sincere. Yet I was a bit disheartened by the whole thing. Solving the problems facing Milwaukee’s education system requires moving beyond decades-old debates that will never be resolved (see bullet points above) and onto confronting some uncomfortable realities.

First, Milwaukee’s public education system is fragmented to the point where enacting meaningful positive change resulting in aggregate improvement is nearly impossible. The reality of competing systems that are funded and regulated differently is a barrier ensuring that positive moves in MPS or the MPCP will leave thousands of children unaffected. A unified governance framework (which threatens just about everyone) is a must.

Second, vouchers have not dramatically improved educational outcomes in Milwaukee. To their credit, both Jensen and Underwood stated that choice is not a panacea, but truly moving forward means not allowing small pieces of positive data to obfuscate the larger reality. This does not mean that voucher policy should be branded as a success or failure. That is a counterproductive premise because of my third point…

…MPCP schools are a permanent and legitimate part of Milwaukee’s public education system. Saying we should just get rid of vouchers is about as helpful as saying we should just get rid of MPS. The MPCP is not the problem and MPS is not the problem. But both must be part of the solution.

Fourth, the quality of Milwaukee’s education system is a function of the quality of Milwaukee’s publicly funded schools. The school and not the system is the appropriate unit of analysis. There is a growing body of organizations in Milwaukee that grasp this, but funding and regulatory incoherence is a barrier to comparing and improving schools across sectors.

So there are my reactions. When I attend functions like these I am always impressed by how much people care about education in Milwaukee. There is no shortage of talent or passion in the city’s education policy community.