Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize.” Public education is the bedrock of our nation. An informed citizenry is required for a democratic nation to function and prosper. The Wisconsin tradition of quality public schools throughout rural areas and within large cities has kept Wisconsin strong and has been reflected in a willingness by our state to invest in our children and their education. This important Wisconsin tradition is being replaced with the idea that education is an area in which reductions, cuts, and lower standards are acceptable. There is grave concern about the impact of the educational policies and practices which will be voted on by our legislators in the next few weeks. Now is the time to stand up for public education. Now is the time to demand that we invest in what the research shows works to improve student achievement.
Our public schools welcome every child of every race, of every ability, and of every economic status. Children with disabilities require additional support. Children living in poverty or exposed to violence need additional assistance. Children struggling with mental illness or who are at risk of failing must be provided with additional resources. Investment in early childhood services for disadvantaged children in order to prevent the achievement gap before it happens is necessary. Funding to meet the unmet mental health needs of children is necessary. Recruiting and retaining quality educators is necessary. These are the evidence based practices which we should be investing in to improve our schools.
In contrast, here is what our legislators on the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) are recommending and what our local legislators will be voting on:
1) Increased state aid will be provided to private voucher and charter schools while flat or decreased funding will be provided for public education. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau predicts that $48 million dollars will be siphoned from public education in the next two years and an additional $600- $800 million over the course of the next 10 years if the voucher expansion plan is approved. There is no way around the fact that publicly funding religious and private schools will diminish the opportunities and quality of education provided by our public schools.
2) A special needs voucher program would allow children in special education programs to attend private schools with the help of a $12,000 taxpayer funded voucher. There is limited accountability for special education in private schools and students would not receive the same legal protections they are afforded by federal law. This concept is not supported by disability rights advocates. Again, while the legislature is allocating money for special education students in private/parochial schools, it has not increased funding for public school special education students in eight years. Reimbursement to public schools for special education expenses has decreased from 34.3% in 2000 to 26.8% in 2015. State Superintendent Tony Evers recently stated that “Educating all students, including those with disabilities, is mandated by state and federal law. When the state shirks that duty, the burden falls on our local property taxpayers and draws resources away from other students.”
3) Research demonstrates that the single greatest impact on student achievement is the classroom teacher. We want teachers who are educated not only in their content knowledge, but in understanding teaching pedagogy and child development. Decreasing the standards and requirements of teacher licensing programs and allowing individuals who will be ill-prepared to take on the challenges of the classroom is misguided and wrong. We need well-trained professionals who can engage and reach even the most difficult students who enter our schools.
There are other provisions in the JFC proposal that should be scrutinized and eliminated until proper discussion and open dialogue is held with appropriate stakeholders and through public hearings, including:
• Not requiring students in public and publicly-funded religious, private, or charter schools to take the same test which would be used to compare them to one another;
• Grading schools like hotels with a five star rating system;
• Requiring students to pass a civics test to earn a high school diploma; and
• Allowing private school students, home-schooled students and virtual school students to participate in any extra-curricular activity or athletic team offered by the public schools.
Wisconsin’s tradition of strong public schools must be upheld through continued investment, not by a desire to economize or defund. All of us who take pride in our local public schools must take a stand. Please contact your legislators and voice your opinion today!
The following area superintendents signed this letter: Guy Leavitt, CESA #4 Administrator; Cindy Zahrte, Tomah School District; Randy Nelson, La Crosse School District; Shawn Donovan, La Farge School District; Jim Kuchta, De Soto School District; Dave Laehn, Bangor School District; Del DeBerg, Melrose-Mindoro School District; John Hendricks, Sparta School District Superintendent; Mike Beighley, Whitehall School District; Curt Bisarek, Hillsboro School District; Steve Sedlmayr, Alma School District; Dale Carlson, Holmen School District; Robert Knadle, Viroqua School District; Mark Gruen, Royall School District; Roger Foegen, Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District; Troy Gunderson, West Salem School District; Paul Fischer, Alma Center-Humbird-Merrillan School District; David Bell, Cashton School District; Tom Hiebert, Cochrane-Fountain City School District; Francis Finco, Onalaska School District; Charles Norton, Westby School District; Jeff Eide, Blair-Taylor School District; Kelly Burhop, Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton School District; Louie Ferguson, Arcadia School District; Paul Vine, Independence School District; Shelly Severson, Black River Falls School District; Steve Lozeau, Wonewoc-Union Center School District.