Sampling the Strong Stew of Thoughts at Eckstein Hall Education Conference

Given the long list of controversial and major decisions to be made soon as the process of setting Wisconsin’s state budget for the next two years comes to a head, it was remarkable how much agreement there was among speakers at the wide-ranging conference on kindergarten through twelfth grade education policy Monday at Eckstein Hall.

“Pivotal Points: A Forum on Key Wisconsin Education Issues as Big Decisions Approach” brought together key figures involved in politics, schools, and education policy before a full-house audience in the Appellate Courtroom.

Yes, there were differences. But speakers covering a spectrum of views found a lot in common, including the need for stable, adequate funding of schools and stable, effective approaches to dealing with assessing students and tackling the challenges of schools where success is not common.

The four-hour conference opened with welcoming remarks from Marquette University President Michael R. Lovell and ended with something close to agreement by a Republican and Democrat involved in State Assembly education policy that “low performing” schools need support and help more than they need to be closed.

Let’s hit a few of the highlights from the conference through quotes from many of the speakers:

Tony Evers, state superintendent of  public instruction, referring to results from the Marquette Law School Poll and the St. Norbert Poll showing strong opposition to cutting public school aid: “The people of Wisconsin have really spoken on this issue.”

Evers, expressing opposition to a proposal, released the morning of the conference, to take control of some low-performing schools away from the Milwaukee Public Schools system: “Looking for a silver bullet is a fool’s errand.”

Professor Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, describing a question in an April poll in which people were asked what was more important, holding down property taxes or increasing school spending: “This is the classic trade off, and in this latest poll, there is a small majority that would rather increase K-12 spending than cut property taxes. We have not always seen that.” In this poll, 54% favored increased school aid and 40% favored property tax restraint. In 2013, the same question was asked twice and both times the results were 49% to 46% in favor of holding down property taxes.

Michael Griffith, senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, based in Denver, describing trends nationwide in state spending on education:We’re seeing in 44, 43 states, increases in ed spending. We’ve seen it for the past two years. Last year we saw nationally about 4 ½ percent.  We’re going to see about 4 to 4 ½ percent this coming school year. You (Wisconsin) have dropped off. You’re in a group (keeping spending close to flat)– Kansas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Alaska are all in this group.”

Scott Gralla of PMA Financial, a consulting firm that works on school finance with districts around the state, describing a five-year projection for the financial health of a generic Wisconsin school district, based on current assumptions: “In four years, this district will be insolvent.”

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), vice chair of the Joint Committee on Finance: “We’re committed from the Assembly joint finance (members) right now, at the very minimal, do no harm. Let’s not cut our schools, any type of schools.“

Jeff Pertl, policy advisor to the state superintendent of education: “The courts have told us there are three things you have to keep in mind when it comes to school finance. You have to serve low income kids, you have to serve students with disabilities, you have to serve English language learners. I think we’re struggling in all three of those areas.”

Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance: “I want to throw another word into the equation, and that is predictability. . . . The first thing to do is to have certainty, stability, predictability, and that will come if the state can get its budget act together and behave in a fairly stable, predictable way.”

Emily Koczela, director of finance Brown Deer School District: “Each of us has a strategy for getting through this coming year. . . . But we can’t keep on.”  Koczela also said,  “The cadre of teaches you are looking in Wisconsin now is as good as you’ve ever seen and they’re doing the most focused work you’ve ever seen. . . .  The whole group of them are doing such good work that you want to give all of them a significant raise.”

Marc Duff, chief financial officer of the Racine United School District: “We are poised to do great things in public education in Wisconsin, but we need to have a funding and finance system and cooperation so we can get ourselves over the top.”

Pat Deklotz, superintendent of Kettle Moraine schools, on whether there is too much standardized testing: “If we don’t use the data, it is absolutely too much (testing). Any test that isn’t used is worthless.”

Sally Flaschberger, advocacy specialist for Disability Rights Wisconsin, on nationwide requirements for annual tests in reading and math, accompanied by achievement goals for special education students:  “With those high expectations, school districts have moved the needle for students with disabilities. . .  Those high expectations for students with disabilities have been a big improvement.”

Amy Mizialko, director of teaching and learning for the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association: “Teachers love tests, we invented them. So let’s just go back to all of that. What students don’t deserve is a learning environment that is entirely focused on test preparation or testing. . . .  Standardized testing has gone from being a nuisance to a concern to a crisis.”

Brad Karl, associate director of the Value-Added Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, describing the highly troubled launch of the Badger Test, a new statewide test that is all-but certain to be dropped after one year: “A good cautionary tale.”

Robert Lowe, professor, Marquette University College of Education: “What is extraordinary about the recent educational reform movement is that it seeks to break the linkage between socioeconomic background and academic achievement and holds schools primarily responsible for making that happen. This is unbelievably powerful and unbelievably demanding as well, because schools were never really designed to do that.”

Darienne Driver, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, on the idea of turning some low-performing MPS schools over to charter or private school operators: “It’s a waste of effort to think that the quick fix is to turn this over to a charter, turn this over to a choice school, when you still have other issues. . . . Just thinking if you can just close it and reopen it, you’re just going to start over, that you’re going to fix the problem, you’re not. You’re trying to delay what is inevitable if we don’t start getting real about what is happening in our schools.”

April Knox, director of coaching for Schools That Can Milwaukee, which works with leaders of  some schools in Milwaukee on improving outcomes. Reacting to concerns that schools not be blamed for the issues students have, she said:  “I think there is a difference between blaming and naming. I don’t think the intent here is blaming, but I do think we have to name when a school has two and three percent proficiency in reading and math. We have to say that is not OK.”

State Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), chair of the Assembly Education Committee:  “I don’t think that shutting schools down is the answer . . . You can have two schools in a community that have students that have essentially the same socio-economic background and one is doing pretty well and one is not and you need to get at the heart of the matter of why is that. . . . There must be something that can be done to reach those students on a higher level than we are now.”

State Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee), member of the Assembly Education Committee: “We’re in dire straits (economically). Is it because of the way that Milwaukee Public Schools educate? We have to look at it the other way around. Is the economic situation in the city of Milwaukee a contributing factor to the performance of Milwaukee Public Schools? As terrible as the economic situation is in a neighborhood is as terrible as the school is going to be.“

That provides some of the content of the conference. To view the entire event, click here.











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