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That's Debatable: Funding public education

By Brian Fraley, Scot Ross

WisOpinion.com has asked two veterans of Wisconsin policy and politics, Scot Ross of One Wisconsin Now and Brian Fraley of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, to engage in weekly exchanges on a topic of their choosing. In this installment of "That's Debatable," Fraley and Ross debate public education.

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Scot, looks like the Son of Stimulus, although stalled, is still on the agenda in Washington. You know, the plan to bail out local and state units of government with another boatload of "one time" money. Predictably, they are dressing this up as the salvation of "teachers" and will use the inflated figure of 300,000 teachers whose will be canned if this bloat doesn't pass. But all it means is the federalization of local and state deficits, which will only accelerate our descent into Greece-like insolvency. At some point this ridiculous spending spree has to stop, because it has already exceeded our ability to pay. But, I know, "It's for the kids!"

Actually, I’d say "It’s for our future.'' Thousands of Wisconsin teachers are facing layoffs, and students from all across the state could be forced into larger classes with less personal attention, fewer course choices and even cuts to instructional time. This responsible education funding plan would provide badly needed support in Wisconsin to save or create 6,100 jobs. Education has to be a top priority. After decades of underfunding at the hands of Republican administration and failed promises made through ``No Child Left Behind,'' we have a simple choice: Support education and our children, or give up on this country’s future greatness.

The responsible education funding plan does not let the feds usurp local control of public schools. Let's give up on the educational bureaucracy that values the duration of service over the quality that's provided, thereby hurting the younger, and often most dedicated educators. Let's quit funding the bloated administrative budgets and non-education related positions and instead focus on classroom instruction. Finally, let's budget honestly and learn that using ``one-time'' money to pay for ongoing obligations is fiscal insanity. The Son of Stimulus is nothing more than a $23 billion bailout of the teachers' unions much like we bailed out the UAW last year. The excessive compensation that is rampant in the educational bureaucracy has been yielding declining performance and exceeds taxpayers' ability to pay. Enough!

Y’know, when it comes to education dollars, conservatives see a zero sum game. The higher the commitment to public education in a community, the less willing the community is to invest shared resources into tax loopholes and giveaways to hand-out-minded corporations. Conservatives have a simple goal for our education system: transfer public education dollars into the hands of private enterprise. America’s education system is one of our greatest resources. Literally, hundreds of millions, even billions, have enjoyed the highest standard of living in history because of the benefits reaped from a quality public education. Conservatives cherry-pick “horror stories” and create skewed testing measures that somehow show all our public schools aren’t worth the cost. It’s nefarious scheme, built on the worst of intentions – privatizing public schools.

When the MacIver Institute devotes hundreds of hours reporting on and analyzing the mess at Milwaukee Public Schools, we do share these horror stories, but it is hardly cherry picking. MPS is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with public education. Zero attention is spent on assessing value, or return on investment. Instead, the dollars going into the system are the only metric used to determine success. Milwaukee's per-pupil expenditures far exceed the state average and continue to go up every year. For that, we have a bloated administration, consultants and counselors out the yin-yang and kids who can't read or do math at grade level. The achievement gap between students of color and their white peers in MPS is the largest in the nation. The number of empty seats on stage at every graduation is staggering. Bad teachers who continually fail their students can't be fired because they're protected by a union that celebrates mediocrity. But we conservatives, who believe we shouldn't keep throwing good money after bad and should instead improve the outcomes at public schools, are the bad guys?

Your classic “comparison” is a classic fallacy. Whether it’s MacIver or WPRI or WISTAX, these ridiculous comparisons create a skewed picture of a complex problem. As if the state’s largest school district in its largest area of poverty can be fairly compared to the state’s other 400-plus school districts. Just a few ways in which the comparisons to other districts and MPS fail to take into account the unique situation in which MPS resides: ignoring the impact of community poverty and the impact of Milwaukee segregation; failing to understand that Milwaukee-area health care costs are the highest in the state; and the practice of plucking high-performing students to participate in voucher schools. MPS is a unique school district where dedicated educators, parents and students are bombarded like no other with junk science from the anti-public education forces – and yet the community is still standing. And standing strong.

The opinions expressed in this exchange are the opinions of the authors and do not represent the views of their employers or WisOpinion.com.

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