Alan Borsuk: If some recent education decisions seem unexplainable, blame it on divisive politics – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Education decision making is a magical process. You can see that in some of the things going on currently.  

For example, how do you add hundreds of millions of dollars to the state budget for education and make it disappear without a dollar being spent on actual schooling? Must be magic.  

Or how do you render silent Milwaukee School Board members and Milwaukee teachers’ union leaders who for years have aggressively criticized contracts and leases between the school board and several charter schools? Maybe someone cast a spell on them.  

Or perhaps you wish upon the stars that a bundle of money – maybe like $800 million – would come your way. Imagine what you’d do with it! Presto, you’ve got it if you’re MPS, thanks to the Biden-led creation of the American Rescue Plan Fund. (Now will you do good things with it? That might require some magic of its own.)    

Or how do you make little or no change in state funding of early childhood education, special education, and development of the teacher workforce of the future and expect improvement in such crucial areas? Must be a belief in magic.  

Or maybe it’s just politics in all its glory – divisive, polarized, bare-knuckled at times, and almost totally lacking any effort to seek middle ground or compromise.   

Let me focus on a couple of these amazing feats. 

The state budget. Wisconsin voters have been asked several times in recent years by the Marquette Law School Poll what is more important to them, reducing property taxes or increasing spending on public schools. In 2013, overall opinion on this was almost evenly divided. But in following years, there was a consistent shift toward school spending. The most recent time the question was asked, in February 2020, property tax cuts were the choice of 38% of voters and school spending increases were the choice of 56%. (I should disclose that I help with work on the poll.)  

The recent estimate that the state had more than $4 billion in income beyond what it expected set off a partisan debate, largely focused on school spending versus tax reduction. The action taken by Republican legislators on Thursday is fully on the side of tax cuts of several kinds. Even money that is directed to school funding is really directed to property tax cuts because the caps on how much schools can spend are not being changed from the levels set in 2019. The state increases will be used for local property tax decreases.  

Will this solve the problem of meeting the “maintenance of effort” requirements attached to the $2 billion-plus in federal pandemic recovery money that schools statewide are expected to get? In short, to get the money, the state is required to keep spending the same percentage (or more) of its budget on schools. The plan initially approved by the budget committee did not do that.  

Supporters of the revised plan approved Thursday said the increased state school aid will meet the “maintenance of effort” standard. Will federal officials agree, given that the money will not actually be spent on schooling? This is an important question.   

MPS and charter schools. To make a long story short, the school board for years has authorized the operation of several charter schools that operate in a generally independent manner. Some board members and the teachers’ union have voiced opposition to these schools, in line with the city’s continued schooling “sector wars.” This was been particularly heated for several schools that lease space in buildings owned by MPS.  

Six months ago, the board voted to renew several charter contracts for three years rather than the usual five. Sounds minor perhaps, but it was a big deal to charter leaders who felt this amped up the message that they were not welcome under the MPS umbrella.   

For that and other reasons, Milwaukee College Prep, a set of four schools with 2,000 students, left MPS and switched to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as its authorizer. This will cut MPS enrollment and cost the system millions of dollars a year. Among other reactions was a statement strongly critical of the school board’s action from John Schlifske, president and CEO of Northwestern Mutual.  

Faced with a situation that can only be called self-defeating, the school board fell silent. When several charter contracts came up for final votes recently, the length had been restored to five years and the contracts were approved with minimal discussion. Leases for the Carmen schools in three MPS buildings, including two where Carmen shares space with MPS schools, drew heat from the union in the past. But on Tuesday (June 15), when those lease renewals came before a school board committee, there was no opposition.  

Referring to the way the former Walker Middle School on the south side is shared by Carmen and the ALBA school, Bob Peterson, president of the board and a former president of the teachers’ union, said, “We want to have a smooth co-location at this point.”  

How interesting. Must be magic. Or maybe a new awareness of self-interest. 

(The same could perhaps have been said for Republicans in the Legislature if they had noted that the big wad of federal pandemic money will go predominantly to schools with high numbers of low-income students, which means schools in places that vote Democratic, while schools elsewhere – largely in Republican areas – will get smaller amounts of federal aid and will be particularly squeezed by the flat level of spending permitted by the Legislature. But that didn’t happen.)   

Ultimately, even with the big wad of federal money coming in the short term, the winners in all of this are almost certain to be the status quo in education. If you’re happy with that, start the celebration. If you think Wisconsin’s kids and the state’s future need better outcomes, then maybe you should keep looking to the stars for answers.   

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at [email protected]  

THANK YOU: Subscribers’ support makes this work possible. Help us share the knowledge by buying a gift subscription.