What Joint Finance Missed on Education

By MIKE FORD | June 10, 2013

What was the most surprising part of the education package passed by the Joint Committee on Finance? 

Was it the rejection of a statewide special needs voucher program?  No.  That issue seemed early on to be lost in the broader voucher expansion discussion. 

Was it the increase in per-pupil revenue limits to public schools?  No.  The Senate in particular was upset about the lack of a public school funding increase; the addition of more funds for public schools was inevitable.

Was it the rejection of the new state charter school board?  Nope.  From the beginning, the charter board appeared to have no legislative champion. 

The most stunning action by the committee was the complete rejection of the underlying concept behind Governor Walker’s original education budget: Tying new money to performance. 

Though operationally flawed, Walker’s original budget was philosophically consistent. 

Walker proposed a categorical aid tied to school performance on the new state report cards in lieu of increasing public school revenue limits.  The idea was that public schools would only receive additional revenue if they were performing.  Walker’s position was a complete sea change from the historical precedent of increasing public funding roughly at the rate of inflation.  This sea change was flatly rejected by Joint Finance. 

Walker proposed limiting a new voucher program only to large districts where two or more schools scored in the two lowest categories on DPI’s new report cards.  Instead, the committee passed an extremely limited statewide voucher program for a small number of low-income pupils.  The performance of a public school or district a child attends has nothing to do with his or her voucher eligibility.

Similarly the aforementioned charter school board was to be empowered to approve entities that could authorize schools only in districts where two or more public schools scored in the lowest categories on the state report cards.  Instead, the Joint Committee on Finance did almost nothing on the charter-authorizer front.                 

On most of the issues the Joint Committee on Finance made the right call.  The school report cards are an imperfect instrument that will be forced to change significantly when the state dumps the current Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam in favor of a new test.  Tying any long-term policy innovation to a report card in existence for just one year would have been a mistake. 

Further, tying charter and voucher eligibly to failing schools implies that these programs are life-raft policies rather than education reforms.  The premise of such a proposal is that a student is guaranteed to automatically be better off using a voucher or attending a charter school.  History in Wisconsin and elsewhere shows this is not the case.  More importantly, charters and vouchers will never become mainstream public education policies if they are used to punish school districts.

It is unfortunate that the idea of a school performance fund went nowhere.  Why not reward successful schools with additional resources by which to continue and strengthen their success?  I do wonder if this proposal could have found success if it was paired with a modest increase in per-pupil revenue limits to being with.  But, unwisely, it was not. 

Of course it is too early to conclude that Walker’s shift towards a funding-for-performance education model is dead.  The budget still faces the full Assembly and Senate, as well as the Governor’s own powerful veto pen.  And even if this budget remains as is, do not be shocked if these proposals resurface two years down the road, at the very least their inclusion in the executive budget makes them fair game for future discussion.