Fixing Wisconsin’s School Funding System

Money matters in K-12 education. Though no amount of money or specific funding formula can guarantee a quality education, an effective funding formula can create the conditions in which quality is possible. And promoting educational quality should be the primary goal of Wisconsin’s school funding system. Unfortunately, the state’s current funding system is outdated. The current school aid formula was built to serve a system without open enrollment, without private school choice, without independent charter schools, and with very different expectations for accountability and transparency. So what can be done? What should be the attributes of a modern school funding system for Wisconsin?

Foremost, the system must provide adequate funding levels so that funding can facilitate, rather than be a barrier to, educational improvement. An adequate funding level is one that enables each and every Wisconsin school district to provide the facilities, personnel, and course offerings upon which a quality education is built. An adequate funding level enables districts to be proactive in planning, rather than being forced to annually plug budget deficits. An adequate funding level recognizes the fixed costs of school districts do not change when small numbers of students enter or leave the district. There is no magic number, and indeed what is adequate will differ across contexts, but it should nevertheless be the dominant value guiding funding reform.

An effective funding system must be equitable. Equity means student funding levels are not determined by the unique economic circumstance in the district in which a student resides. The current formula is built on equity, however the shifting of annual per-pupil increases to state categorical aids as opposed to revenue limit increases perverts the current formula’s equity goal. Equity also means recognizing that expanding the meaning of public education in Wisconsin via school choice programs requires comparable per-pupil funding levels, and comparable regulatory and reporting requirements, for all students receiving a publicly funded education.

A reformed system must also be logical and singularly focused on funding K-12 education. The current system contains numerous illogical attributes. First, the use of 1994 as the base year for revenue limit increases assumes that district-level funding decisions made over 25 years ago should be a primary determinant of per-pupil funding levels today. Though scheduled increases to the minimal revenue limit per-pupil will no doubt make many district administrators happy, it is a Band-Aid that does not address the real problem. Further, the state funding formula has two conflicting purposes, funding education and providing tax relief. This value conflict obfuscates the true level of funding schools receive, poisons the public debate over proper school funding levels, and gives the public the perception that increases in school aids means increases in resources for students. Tax relief is an important issue, but it must be separated from education funding in any logical effective system.

Finally, an effective system must be understandable. The average Wisconsin citizen, and more than a few lawmakers and civic leaders, cannot decipher how our current funding system works. This is unacceptable. The state spends more on education than any other core service, and it is impossible for there to be true accountability, performance measurement, or even well-informed political debate regarding K-12 education funding when the formula driving resource allocation is not broadly understood.

There is no silver bullet, small reform, or gimmicky slogan that can make Wisconsin’s education funding system work. But setting the clear goal of creating a system designed to promote educational quality tells us where we need to go. Agreeing on the core values of adequacy, equity, logic, and understandability will help us get there.

Thank for listening and good luck moving forward.


Sources of Priority Conflict on City School Boards

City school districts are different animals. The socioeconomic challenges students face, the special interest group pressures, the spill-over effects of city politics, and countless other factors combine to make urban school district governance unique. Doug Ihrke and I wrote a bit on this topic last year. Basically, we found that poor governing dynamics have a particularly negative effect on city school boards. This begged the obvious question, what are the sources of conflict on city school boards? In a new paper just published in Urban Education entitled “Determinants of Priority Conflict on City School Boards,” we work to answer that question.

We draw on data from our 2014 national survey of school board members, specifically focusing on 72 boards classified as “City” by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The NCES defines city as being:

  • “inside an urbanized area and inside a principal city with population of 250,000 or more.”
  • “inside an urbanized area and inside a principal city with population less than 250,000 and greater than or equal to 100,000,” or
  • “inside an urbanized area and inside a principal city with population less than 100,000.”

In previous work on board conflict we simply asked board members their perceptions of several negative conflict types. In this work we tried something new, creating a variable measuring the extent to which board members serving together differ in their governing priorities. Board members were asked to rank, from 1 to 10, the following priorities:

  • Strategic planning
  • Setting academic standards
  • Hiring the superintendent
  • Monitoring fiscal performance
  • Holding school staff accountable for district performance
  • Making assessment policies
  • Making student behavior policies
  • Interacting with the public
  • Collaborating with interest groups
  • Board development

Next we calculated distance scores to determine the level of priority conflict present on the board. We developed and tested several hypotheses, but here are the two main findings:

  • Boards serving districts with higher percentages of ELL pupils, and higher percentages of male students had more priority conflict.
  • Districts with lower-levels of funding had less priority conflict.

Interestingly, some of things we expected to impact priority conflict, including the quality of board member-superintendent relations and good board development practices, did not. So why what is the contribution here? As we conclude in the paper:

  • First, by focusing on urban school boards, the study speaks to the growing recognition that urban board governance is a unique case that demands to be understood in its own context.
  • Second, the creation of an independent priority conflict variable based on school board member priority rankings is an improvement over previous work focused on conflict perceptions.

Our hope is to use this piece as a basis for measuring board conflict in new ways, and for further exploring the unique context of urban school boards.

Stages of Rejection

Four reviews. Two and half years. From major revision to accept with minor revision. A revolving door of reviewers. And then rejection. The peer review process can be brutal sometimes, and I find myself reacting in predictable ways when it gets rough.

First I want to crawl into a hole. Not angry, but beaten. Then comes the confusion and anger stage. Why did they send it new reviewers? Were they searching for a reason to reject it? Is it my work, my affiliation, or my background? Why did they keep moving the goalposts? Did I get screwed over?

And then the self-doubt. Perhaps I am just bad at this. To go from an accept with minor revision to a rejection must mean a screw-up of epic proportions? Right? Which of the minor changes I made resulted in a major change of heart from the journal? Is my work poorly done, or worse, irrelevant?

Next comes thoughts on opportunity cost. If I had sent this elsewhere, it would likely be published by now, and would be the first look at this issue rather than a manuscript that is late to the party. Why did I go for this journal when I could be having an impact with my work by now? Was it vanity? A desire to be accepted into a research community that hits above my weight class? Have I been sucked into a part of academia I never wanted to be a part of?

Thankfully (and with good guidance from mentors wiser than I), I get practical. What part of the rejection is relevant? What journal do I try next? What is this piece really supposed to be? Now, everything aside from the practical stage is really just pointless self-indulgence, but hey, we are human beings right? I teach the Hawthorne experiments and complaining makes people feel better (up to a point)!

At the end of the day it really does not matter why a paper gets rejected by a specific journal. It may be quality, it may be fit, it may be a change in the editorial board, or something else. Journals know that they want, and have every right to publish what they want how they want. I find the best feedback is usually from the work itself, the more I do this the more I am able to tell the difference between my A+ work, and my less than A+ work.  Good work will find a home. Rejection is part of academia, everyone experiences it. Back on the horse.



Thoughts on Stevens Point and the Future of the UW System

Almost two years ago I wrote about the changes to the UW system’s tenure policy, I was cautious in my thinking, concluding:

I do not think you will see an immediate exodus if these changes are implemented…I imagine most faculty do not think their program will be at risk…However, the first time a UW system school lays off tenured faculty for “financial or strategic planning reasons” the calculus changes. If it can happen to [said program] it can happen to my program. This is when the system will start losing large numbers of quality people.

The recent news out of UW-Stevens Point shows we are getting closer to a critical point. If programs such as political science and history are cut, and if tenured faculty are let go (still two really big ifs, but more real this week than last week), I fear UW system schools will be at a permanent disadvantage in the faculty labor market. We will struggle to recruit at all, much less the best people, and talented faculty will inevitably flee for more stable positions. Reduced faculty quality means a degraded student experience in UW system schools. I do not think that helps our state.

Then there is the larger question of how a regional comprehensive university can even exist without English, History, Political Science, etc. What exactly will UW-Stevens Point be? A university is not an a la carte collection of courses, but an organization whose offerings are designed to reinforce and complement one another. Teaching in an inter-disciplinary subject I am particular sensitive to this reality. It is very simplistic to think certain programs can be eliminated without having an impact on other programs, and ultimately student learning and future job prospects.

I am not naive. The UW system (as well as my institution) has issues, some of these issues are a result of demographic changes and political decisions, and some are self-inflicted. I do not fear reform. Personally I think UW system schools should pursue increased partnerships and programming across campuses to leverage the unique capabilities and talents that exist across the system. I think faculty incentive structures are outdated and too often divorced from the practical impacts of research and outreach. Yes, the pathologies of bureaucracy exist across the system and should be rooted out.

But positive change requires a thoughtful approach that engages faculty and leadership across the system. Positive change must be rooted in objective realities rather than anecdotes and faulty understandings of how universities work and what faculty do on a daily basis. Positive change must be guided by a common agreed upon understanding of the UW system’s goals. By all means let’s rethink higher education in this state, but let’s not just make it up as we go along.

The State of Public Administration: Reflecting on the Challenges, Harnessing Opportunities

Scholars and practitioners in the field of public administration are continually working to meet the ongoing challenge of providing public services in an efficient, effective, and equitable matter. H. George Frederickson (2005) described this challenge as addressing both “whether an existing public program or proposed program is effective or good,” and “[f]or whom is the program effective or good” (35). Frederickson’s two questions continue to present a simple framework for understanding the complex challenges, both external and internal, facing the field of public administration.

Many of the external challenges, i.e. those originating outside the field, are familiar. The first is legitimacy. While elected officials can point to election results as evidence of their leadership mandate, those within the bureaucracy must legitimize their actions through professionalism, merit, and performance. And even then, members of the public may deem administrative actions illegitimate. The second external challenge is political gridlock. Though gridlock is arguably ingrained in American government as a result of the the basic contradictions present at the founding of the American republic (see Stillman, 1999), paralysis in congress and/or state legislatures feeds into the perception of a generally ineffective or incompetent government. Such a perception breeds general distrust in government, and hurts recruitment of the next generation of effective public servants. The third challenge is the blurring of lines between the public and nonprofit and private sectors. Partly a reaction to the fiscal stresses faced by government, the blurring of sectors can undermine traditional approaches to transparency, accountability, and government responsiveness by diffusing responsibility and regulation. In addition, movement toward multi-sector network governance changes the core-competencies needed in an effective public manager.

The two prominent internal challenges, i.e. those originating in the field, are also familiar. First is the basic question of how best to define the scope of public administration. As government structures and needed public management competencies evolve, theory development and standardized learning outcomes must also evolve if the academic field of public administration is to keep up with practice. This leads to the second internal challenge, which is connecting public administration research to practice. As the techniques deployed in the academic field of public administration become more sophisticated, there is the risk that research supported practices become either inaccessible, or impractical to the practitioner.

Together, the challenges facing the field stem from the difficulty of answering Frederickson’s two questions in a diverse democratically governed society. Simply, the perceived effectiveness, and the perceived beneficiaries of a government action or program are likely dependent on one’s personal preferences, political ideology, or demographics. Hence, easy answers to Frederickson’s questions will be fleeting. However, the field today is full of opportunities that can aid the effective, efficient, and equitable provision of public services and goods.

The first opportunity is the development of new technologies that enhance communication between administrators, and between administrators and citizens. Managers overseeing complex governing networks can communicate electronically with human capital regardless of geographic location, or deployment in the field. In addition, management dashboards such as those described by Edwards and Thomas (2005) can give managers and staff real-time financial and performance data that can be used to improve performance. In addition, social media tools allow government organizations to communicate directly with their citizens, provide real-time service updates, and provide a venue for direct communication between bureaucrat and citizen. These opportunities can improve performance, and help bureaucracies overcome the previously mentioned legitimacy challenge.

The second opportunity is the greater understanding of the human element within public administration. Gabris and Nelson (2013), Grissom (2014) and others, have built on the foundations of the human relations school in public administration by demonstrating how governance teams can improve organizational performance through improved group dynamics. Thus, simple steps like minimizing conflict and working to build trust can improve overall performance. The further development of this line of research can show what steps all public service organizations can take to improve their performance regardless of the context in which they are operating.

The third opportunity is the expanding networks of nonprofit organizations and social entrepreneurs actively involved in public administration. While the blurring of sectors brings challenges as mentioned, it can also yield new innovative governance approaches stemming from previously untapped resources. The growth of networks can also bring the financial resources of private foundations to policy areas where government support is waning. Overall, networks can, as articulated by O’Toole (1997), bring a larger plate of solutions to bear on entrenched public problems.

Frederickson’s framework brings to light the inherent difficulty of defining effectiveness and ensuring equity in the field of public administration. However, because all citizens sacrifice freedom and treasure to participate in a governed society, working towards the goals of effectiveness and equity is a moral imperative. Thus, the greatest asset for the field of public administration is the large number of scholars and practitioners working everyday to find new approaches for addressing the complex challenge of implementing the public interest. This body of competence, when bound with the academic roots of public administration through the continuity of theory, has the opportunity to provide research-supported solutions to the challenge of public governance.

Works Cited

Edwards, D., & Thomas, J. C. (2005). Developing a Municipal Performance‐Measurement System: Reflections on the Atlanta Dashboard. Public Administration Review65(3), 369-376.

Frederickson, H. G. (2005). The State of Social Equity in American Public Administration. National Civic Review (Winter), 31-38.

Gabris, G. T., & Nelson, K. L. (2013). Transforming Municipal Boards into Accountable, High-Performing Teams: Toward a Diagnostic Model of Governing Board Effectiveness. Public Performance & Management Review, 36(3), 472-495.

Grissom, J. A. (2014). Is Discord Detrimental? Using Institutional Variation to Identify the Impact of Public Governing Board Conflict on Outcomes. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 24(2), 289-315.

O’Toole, L. J. (1997). Treating networks seriously: Practical and research-based agendas in public administration. Public Administration Review, 57(1): 45-52.

Stillman, R. J. (1999). Preface to Public Administration (2nd ed.). Burke, VA: Chatelaine Press.