Beloit’s issues must be solved in Beloit, not at the Capitol in Madison.
In Madison, the process is as predictable as the sun rising in the east. Democrat Gov. Tony Evers proposes a budget, including education plans, and the Republican-majority Legislature swats it away like a gnat.
The Joint Finance Committee, with a 12-4 Republican majority, will discard Evers’ plan and write its own which, of course, Evers will dismiss. Eventually, some kind of patched-together deal will emerge and neither side will get everything it wants.
Such is the reality of divided government in Wisconsin. And we should all be glad, because single-party control either way in these divisive times pretty much guarantees extremism, left or right.
Meanwhile, in Beloit, the school district’s board of education has picked sides. That’s a mistake.
Last week the board proposed and unanimously adopted a resolution largely getting behind Evers’ proposals. In the first place, that’s a technically nonpartisan board showing its partisan tendencies. Likewise, it’s a competitively challenged school district lobbying for state authorities to kneecap the competition.
The board’s resolution cites a series of priorities it identifies and its belief the Evers plan is the right solution. The priorities backed by the board are targeting support for students with special needs such as pupils with disabilities and English language learners; higher funding for public education to restore two-thirds state financing; restoring collective bargaining for teachers; capping vouchers and public charter schools; and spending more to close Wisconsin’s embarrassing racial education gap.
Not all of these are bad ideas but enough of them are questionable, controversial and partisan to make it clear—at least to a substantial portion of the district’s population—the board is out of line in picking sides with little to no regard for public input.
For example, speaking of priorities, residents here have all but taken out billboards to suggest the two top wants are higher academic scores and improved discipline. Board members, apparently, see things differently.
As for the board’s obvious disdain for its competitors, the actions of parents speak loudly. From open public school enrollment, to private voucher schools to the new public charter Lincoln Academy, the annual bleed-out from the Beloit district includes hundreds of students and the dollars that go with them. There are two general ways to tackle tough competition: (1) do a better job, or (2) rig the rules. Guess which one the board appears to favor.
Simply put, the state already found it is unable to afford two-thirds funding of public education. It was a grand idea when then-Gov. Tommy Thompson embraced it, but even in the best of times the policy crowded out other priorities. Besides, if throwing money at educational problems could solve things this discussion would be unnecessary. Ask this question: If given increased funding would educators bet their jobs on whether higher spending would produce commensurately rising academic scores and improved discipline?
A little history is in order regarding the proposal to restore collective bargaining. Under the Walker administration Act 10 was passed, restricting public employee unions’ ability to negotiate wages and benefits exceeding the annual rate of inflation and influencing working conditions. Previously, the deck had been stacked in favor of unions and annual increases routinely surpassed not only the rate of inflation but also prevailing conditions in the private sector. Voters were sick of paying the tab and broadly supported reforming Wisconsin’s relationship with public employees. Did Act 10 go too far? In some ways. That’s usually what happens when the political pendulum swings. An argument can be made for revisiting some elements of Act 10, but a full turning back of the clock is a non-starter.
The most important local consideration, though, is less about specifics—the folks in Madison will sort those out—and more about the inappropriateness of the board appearing to choose partisan sides.
There’s no doubt education is a hot issue in Beloit, as it has been for many years. Dissatisfaction with the School District of Beloit runs deep, as evidenced by the number of parents choosing to move their kids each year. In many ways Beloit has become a laboratory for alternative programs, closely watched around the state. Growth in the supply of competitors has been driven by demand from parents looking for choices.
That doesn’t mean the people stand against the School District of Beloit. All stakeholders want the district to succeed and get better. The community urgently needs the district to succeed. Alternative educational choices can’t replace the district. Despite all the families opting for alternatives the School District of Beloit remains by far the biggest and most important institution. And we still believe a motivated student with sufficient support at home and in the classroom can get a world-class education in the district.
Look, board members’ frustration is understandable, to some extent. But frustration is not a strategy. Neither is wishing for what’s not coming, namely, buckets of new money and shackles on the competition. Likewise, picking partisan sides can only alienate people and divide the community more. The way forward hasn’t changed. Get better, and prove it when statewide scores are announced each year.