February 4, 2009

Public education funding reform plan offered

Dr. Jack Parker, deputy superintendent of Racine Unified, talks Feb. 4 at
Walden III School in favor of changing the state's school financing system.

By Paul Holley
For RacinePost

An ambitious, comprehensive and expensive state public education funding reform plan was introduced in Racine Wednesday by the School Finance Network. The plan’s backers conceded, however, that they’ll face challenges from a financially beleaguered Wisconsin Legislature.

SFN, which bills itself as a coalition of educators, school board members, parents and business interests, unveiled the plan at a mid-morning press conference held at Walden III Middle and High School. Nine similar events were scheduled throughout the state on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“If the current system was working, we wouldn’t be here,” said Jack Linehan, a retired school administrator and executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance. “The (funding) system we have in place once worked but it’s no longer valid. The urgency to change is there, recognizing the economic environment we’re in.”

More than two years in the making, the SFN proposal controls property taxes, increases state aid to local school districts, promotes economic equality among districts and addresses students, particularly the neediest – low-income, special education and immigrants, he said.

Linehan also pointed out that the proposed reforms already have broad-based support. SFN members include labor (AFT-Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Education Association Council) and management (Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators). “Crises bring out the best in people,” he said. “You get the best ideas and you get people talking and working together.”

The 12-page SFN proposal calls for reforming the local school revenue controls enacted by the Legislature in 1993-94 that critics contend unfairly squeeze public education budgets. The proposal would tie school revenue controls to income growth instead of the Consumer Price Index and boost state aid for services where costs have risen more rapidly than the state-mandated revenue increases.

The plan also addresses how tax dollars are distributed among school districts; state aid to a laundry list of programs (i.e. low-income students, special education, English language learners, four-year-old kindergarten, transportation, security); increased efficiencies; property tax relief; the Qualified Economic Offer, and measurement of how the funding reforms affect school success. The SFN recommends a five-year phase-in period for some of the reforms. (The proposal and additional details can be found here.

When asked to place a dollar amount on the proposal, Linehan said a 1 percent increase in state public education spending would come in at $550 million a year for four years. He acknowledged that increased public education funding will be a tough sell among many state lawmakers.

At this point, at least, the SFN offers no funding specifics for the plan beyond a statement that lawmakers and the governor might consider “eliminating existing tax loopholes and tax breaks. . .or exploring possible federal funding.”

“I think a wise person will look at this as an investment in our educational future,” Linehan said. “I would counter that we can’t wait until the economy improves. I’m hearing more and more that there is a realization that we need to do something. And, I recognize that a debate has to occur.”
That debate will take place within a few weeks. Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, D-Middleton, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, has agreed to hold a hearing on the SFN proposal on March 24.

Organizers of the Racine event turned out a varied contingent of public supporters. Speaking in favor of the SFN efforts were: Jack Parker, Racine Unified School District deputy interim superintendent; Herb Katt, owner of Katt Construction; Lisa Scott Ptacek, a parent and PTA member, and Julie Fornary, a Walden teacher.

Attending from RUSD were Superintendent Jim Shaw and School Board members Gretchen Warner, Don Nielsen and Julie McKenna.

The SFN has a created sophisticated grassroots mechanism that includes the organization’s website plus Facebook, MySpace and Twitter pages that promise video, podcast and blog updates. Representatives from a public relations firm were on hand to shepherd media members at the event.

“Today, marks the first step,” said Linehan. “I can’t say what is going to happen but at least we’re going to have a huge discussion about reforming education funding.”

No comments:

Post a Comment