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Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009

Reforming Education Reform

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In Washington, the Obama administration is going to have a license to kill eight years of government showering gifts upon the wealthy and create real change with tax breaks for ordinary, working Americans who actually need them, universal health care and millions of new jobs.

In dramatic contrast, Wisconsin, like most other state governments, will be eliminating jobs and cutting programs as a result of a multibillion-dollar state budget deficit left by George Bush’s economic wreckage.

Even though Democrats have control of the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature for the first time since 1986, they won’t have much fiscal freedom to create any dramatic, new reforms.

One possible exception could be education. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and other governors close to President-Elect Barack Obama are pleading with the new president to include hundreds of billions of dollars in new education funds in his economic stimulus package.

Because of Obama’s strong interest in education, Chicago Superintendent Arne Duncan, Obama’s choice for secretary of education, could have more of a mandate to truly reform American education, especially urban education, than the department has ever had.

But before those resources can make a real difference in educating the kids who need it most, we are going to have to clean up after some of our previous educational reforms in this state.

For years, the state’s school funding formula has been seriously out of whack, shortchanging both urban and rural school districts, which face the most daunting educational challenges, while benefiting wealthier school districts where children already have every educational advantage.

It’s great that there is an automatic assumption in wealthy suburban school districts that children will get an outstanding secondary education, go on to the college of their choice and have successful, rewarding careers.

Now we just need to provide the same assumption for urban and rural children.

Wrongheaded Assumptions

The Legislature has shown itself incapable of correcting inequities in the school funding formula. Those who receive more than their fair share under state funding have no interest in giving up that advantage to benefit children who receive less.

Wisconsin likes to think of itself as a pioneer in educational reform, but we have to remember that recent reforms were created by conservative Republican politicians at the behest of national conservative education lobbies with the support of conservative local business leaders. And many of these reforms are based on laughingly wrongheaded assumptions.

The biggest whopper is the argument that vouchers will improve public school education by taking money away from the public schools and giving it to private and religious schools. Public schools then will be forced to improve in order to compete for students.

Following that logic, when the Big Three American automobile companies went to Washington to beg for money because their businesses were on the verge of collapse, Congress should have shipped $30 billion to Toyota and Honda. Funding the competition would make General Motors, Chrysler and Ford more successful companies.

The only reason to spend public money to send children to voucher schools would be if we were assured voucher schools would provide quality education for anyone who chose to apply. Some do. Some don’t. Most we don’t know.

We shipped tax money to private voucher schools for nearly 20 years before the state even got around to beginning a study of whether those schools were performing any better or worse than public schools. We still don’t know the results of that study.

We’ve been such suckers for anything conservatives call education reform. Their ideas of reform almost always reduce resources to public schools where the majority of poor children and children of color are educated and increase resources for private schools where their own children are educated.

The latest “magic bullet” is Pay for Performance for teachers, which Obama wants to try and Duncan has experimented with in Chicago.

Anyone who has ever negotiated a contract knows that “merit pay” is a euphemism for management arbitrarily paying the people who do all the work whatever management wants.

It sounds logical that teachers who work the hardest and do the best jobs should receive the best pay. The tricky part is how performance is judged. We can’t count up at the end of the day how many children’s lives were changed, but we know the best teachers do change lives.

We also know it’s a lot easier to teach highly motivated kids with strong support at home. And it’s a lot harder to teach children who are living in poverty and have multiple problems in their lives. Teachers who reach those children literally save lives.

So-called education reform should stop trashing Milwaukee Public Schools and start increasing the pay of teachers in urban and rural school districts where good teachers are needed most.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.