Photo: Todd Price, with his 2-year-old son, Enze
When it comes to public education in Wisconsin, Professor Todd Price is a radical.
The Kenosha native and resident, one of five candidates for state superintendent of schools, actually believes public education can benefit the state’s future. He supports spending more money on public schools, rethinking how we approach education and paying teachers more to draw in more qualified applicants.
He also doesn’t believe Democrats or Republicans have shown they’re up to the task. He blames both parties for supporting a school funding formula that’s shifted tax burden from businesses to homeowners, and allowed Wisconsin’s schools to slip in national rankings in recent years.
In short, and cliché as its become, Price is running to bring real change to Wisconsin’s schools. Real change, he said, starts with changing the way the state pays for schools.
“Everybody is feeling the pinch right now,” he said in a recent interview in Racine. “We have to think about where we spend our money. Right now we spend seven times more on inmates than education. That should tell you something.”
Price, who is married with two young children, is running to replace School Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster, who is leaving the largely advisory position after two four-years terms. He’s running in a primary election on Tuesday to advance to the general election on April 7; the top two candidates advance.
Price isn’t shy in saying the state needs to spend more on education. He criticized Gov. Jim Doyle for using the budget crisis as a reason to cut education funding.
“We can’t not have money for schools,” Price said. “No increase is not the new increase. That’s ridiculous. … This isn’t a raise-taxes, not-raise-taxes issue. You need a long-term view. We can’t fund by referendum anymore. We can’t sustain it.”
Racine Unified is a good example. The district struggles on an annual basis to balance its budget without making significant cuts to programs or going to referendum for extra money. It’s led to a contentious relationship between the district and the public, left schools in disrepair and resulted in relatively poor student performance.
Price said it’s time for businesses, and politicians, to pick up the slack. “They’re not ponying up to the table and paying their fair share,” he said, though adding businesses aren’t to blame for the funding shortfall.
“I blame the politicians,” Price said. “Why should a business pay taxes if they’re not held accountable?”
One area he wouldn’t advise turning to: property taxes. Home and property owners are already paying too much to fund schools, Price said, adding: “People are being priced out of their homes.”
Price brings a background of research to his run for office. After attending several state universities and earning a bachelor’s degree from UW-Eau Claire, masters degrees from UW-Stout and UW-Madison and a PhD from UW-Madison. He’s now an associate professor at National-Louis University.
Price did a lot of research in Ohio, which he described as one of the worst funded public school systems in the country with incredible disparities between school districts. The gap between rich and poor districts is as much as $11,000 per student.
The disparities are the result of a 20-year fight over public education funding in Ohio. He sees a similar, destructive trend developing in Wisconsin.
“We’re seven years in now, and we’re starting to see the dents,” Price said.
One major dent that needs to be fixed is in the federal No Child Left Behind Law. The law was designed to create a national testing system and hold schools accountable for student performance. In reality, it’s undermining student performance, Price said.
Teachers are teaching to the test, and in some cases, it results in short-lived improvements. But any gains in elementary and middle school erode as the students get older because there’s no substance behind the teaching, he said. Students can pass the tests, Price said, but they don’t really learn.
Meanwhile, principals are left in an awkward position because they have to massage the numbers, and teachers are leaving the profession because schools are turning into pressure-cookers more interested in test results than education.
“I don’t mind that in business, or in my job, but I don’t want it to be a pressure cooker for our kids,” Price said. “We want to build a love of learning. I don’t believe testing does that. … We’re using a system that’s 150 years old.”
Among the talked about school reforms, Price is adamantly opposed to school vouchers, which allocate state funding for students who choose to attend private schools. He said voucher programs in their current form serve a narrow ideological interest and has nothing to do with the kids. That said, Price said he would support a voucher system that gave every student a $20,000 annual voucher to attend the school of their choice.
“If voucher supporters agreed to that, I would rethink my position,” Price said. “That would be an exciting and interesting position.”
While the superintendent’s race is nonpartisan, Price associates himself with the Green Party. He said the state should take on an aggressive program to retrofit and build environmentally green schools. He added the state’s funding formula creates such a disparity in Wisconsin’s schools altering it is a matter of social justice, which is another Green Party value.
Price also said the Democrats and Republicans are poor on education issues. Even Democrats want to save the No Child Left Behind Law, he said.
“The intervention of the federal government is totally inappropriate,” Price said, noting the federal government demanded accountability from schools while underfunding education across the country. “Where’s the accountability to fund their law?”
“Frankly, I’ve been disappointed in Democrats and Republicans in their support of public education,” he said.
Price said the federal government is taking an increasing role in deciding what local schools should teach to their students. The centralized authority raises issues about who should control what’s taught in communities. “It’s totally inappropriate,” Price said about federal laws that require teaching certain material. “Once they (federal government officials) get involved in the schools, I’m sorry, but it seems like North Korea.”
If there’s hope in Wisconsin, it’s that public officials are waking up to the reality of a decaying system, Price said. As the state’s public schools slip in national rankings, there seems to be interest in reworking the formula that determines how much money is spent on schools.
Outside of a high-level issues, like funding, Price said he’d like to see more individual attention for every student. He supports having an individualized education program for every student. The plan would be crafted by the student, their parental figures and school officials to help students layout long-term goals and schools develop customized programs to match students’ interests and abilities.
As for teachers, he wants to make the profession more attractive to more people by increasing salaries. Good teachers make a big difference in student achievement, Price said.
“We know students achieve when they have great teachers in the classroom,” he said. “I’m interested in making teaching a desirable profession.”
Price is also interested in shaking up the debate over public schools in Wisconsin. While his opponents lay out safe positions on educational issues, he’s not shy in pushing progressive viewpoints on issues. He’s hoping his outright advocacy for education in the state will win supporters on Tuesday.
“We have the will to rethink how we fund education in the state,” Price said. “It’s catching on. People realize we don’t have a year to wait.”
Full disclosure: Price is an advertiser on RacinePost.