Quality Schools for Wisconsin

“It takes a village to raise a child,”  an African proverb.

The problems facing Wisconsin’s public schools are complex. There are no quick or easy fixes. But neither are the problems insurmountable. Like with many issues the problems in education are solvable. We have the knowledge and resources to make needed improvements. We lack the will to make it happen.

Many of these problems are structural. They are the result of the outdated educational system and funding mechanisms. I am not a expert on education but I have a lifetime of being a student, adult learner, an an instructor in a variety of work settings. This article reiterates these suggestions for improving our pubic schools.

Our public school systems are based on the agricultural society of the past. The school year, property tax funding, and local school boards are relics of a 19th century rural society.

But we live in a 21st century science based, digital world with a global economy. We need a new, more equal, foundation for delivering education and paying for public schools.

The school year is a prime example of 19th century practices. Today the three month summer vacation serves no useful purpose. It only creates childcare problems for parents while retarding academic progress. Students have to re-learn all they forgot over the summer. I suspect the only reason it still exists is financial. We are too cheap to air condition schools and pay for staff and teachers to work a full year.

Funding schools with local property taxes is another legacy of the 19th century. There is no logical reason to pay for schools with property taxes. It is simply a tradition. We will never have equal educational opportunity until schools are supported 100% with statewide income taxes.

Neither is it good for quality education to leave the financial management of schools in local hands. No other statewide public service is financed with property taxes or controlled by local boards. Too often the motivation for getting on the school board is to keep property taxes low. Quality education, and the needs of children, are a too often not a priority.

Local school boards are an anachronism. They often do more harm than good. There is nothing local about the educational needs for today’s students. The knowledge and skills needed in a modern society are not different based on where one lives. There should not be differences in the quality of education from one school district to another. All students deserve – and all of us would benefit from – equal educational opportunity for all students.

It is time we created a statewide public school system.  All schools should be owned and operated by the state Department of Education (like other state agencies with statewide services). The system should be overseen by a single, non-political, statewide school board. This is the only way to provide equal, stable financing of all schools and ensure quality instruction for all students.

Many of the 421 school districts in Wisconsin should be consolidated while maintaining local schools. Administrative overhead costs could be greatly reduced by eliminating highly paid district administrators, consolidating accounting, personnel management, purchasing, functions, and integrating school staff into state employee health care and benefit programs.

All teachers and support staff should be state employees. All teachers would be paid on a statewide schedule, reducing variations in teacher experience and quality for rural areas and smaller communities.

Teachers should be hired using a statewide civil service testing process that eliminates who-you-know as a criteria. Too many teachers are hired because they went to the local school, attend the right church, coach a sport, or have personal connections. Local school boards controlling hiring has not served students well.

Statewide qualifications and performance standards for teachers would enhance the image of the profession and justify necessary higher pay. Teacher training, especially in the their subject area, should be rigorous. Republican proposals to reduce, or eliminate, teaching certification standards are misguided. Currently Wisconsin has a teacher recruitment and retention crisis. This problem is partially created by low pay and lack of prestige and respect for the profession.

An Internet search on “fixing education” will turn up many articles, studies, and reports (long ignored) on improving public schools. Many of these sources agree with my suggestions about reforming the school year, better teacher training, better teacher compensation, and  eliminating property tax funding. These sources also offer additional recommendations:

The emphasis on high stakes standardized testing has not helped to improve educational outcomes. Testing has produced “teaching to the test” and not enhanced student development.

Reducing class sizes has long been recognized as essential to improving student performance. Only adequate funding can reduce the teacher pupil ratio.

Teaching aides and non-teaching staff are not frills. Successful schools in other countries provide robust support for teachers with social workers, nurses and other professional staff.

Free school meals are not a frill. Learning does not occur when children come to school hungry.

The achievement gaps for minority students must be addressed. Another reason for a statewide system with equal funding and necessary support staff.

Curriculum should include practical subjects and vocational training. All students will benefit from instruction on the topics needed to function in the everyday, real world in addition to academic subjects.

Parental involvement is important but parents (or politicians) should not be setting policy or running schools. Teachers and education professionals should have more input in how schools are operated.

Many of the current problems are caused by political interference. Self-serving politicians, religious zealots, voucher school advocates and for-profit hucksters have turned education into a political football. This needs to end.

From birth children are actively engaged in learning about their world. Infants are terrific learners. Children are completely helpless at birth, but within a few years have learned a complex language, motor skills, and social relationships. Schools should build on this natural curiosity and motivation but most public and private schools do not.