Wisconsin Legislators Address Federal Funding Barriers

Published October 26, 2009

The potential of receiving a federal Race to the Top grant award has shifted Wisconsin’s education reform debate, but so far the state has made little legislative progress toward reaching the goal.

Assembly Bill 393, the linchpin of the effort to make Wisconsin eligible for Race to the Top funds, would revoke the state’s ban on allowing measured academic outcomes to affect teacher compensation.

“Student performance must be a part of the evaluation of our schools and our teachers,” said Brett Healy, president of the state’s MacIver Institute for Public Policy. “We are ignoring reality if we try to prohibit such a link.”

Reform Stalled

One state lawmaker said there is bipartisan support for the proposal.

“I think we need to get it done to show the nation we are serious about education,” said state Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee).

AB 393 went more than seven weeks from its introduction in late August without as much as a committee hearing. The last day of the legislative session was November 5. One leading bill sponsor expressed aggravation at the slow pace taken by the majority party to move on a key opportunity to advance school reform.

“I’m optimistic that something can be done, but am frustrated that the Democrats have dragged their feet for so long,” said state Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon).

Motivated by Federal Dollars

Under guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education, states that prohibit linking teacher pay to student performance are not eligible for any of the $5 billion in Race to the Top funds. California overturned its ban in October. Nevada and Wisconsin remain the two states that have yet to address the issue.

“It shouldn’t take a Race to the Top federal program to implement these reforms in Wisconsin,” Davis said.

In addition, Healy says it should not be difficult for a state facing severe budget shortages to seize the opportunity to apply for Race to the Top money.

“Given our gloomy fiscal situation, Wisconsin politicians are not going to pass up an opportunity to grab an extra $612 million of federal funding,” he said.

A Sheboygan teachers union official whose nonprofit group advocates for pay reforms believes Davis’ bill should be passed precisely to make the state eligible for the federal grant money. Educator Compensation Institute President Jim Carlson believes Race to the Top could enable several Wisconsin school districts to adopt and implement his “Accomplished Teaching Pathways” (A-PATH) compensation framework. A-PATH would raise total dollars spent on teacher salaries by providing rewards for assuming leadership responsibilities, receiving National Board certification, and working in challenging school environments.

Including Student Results

The A-PATH framework does not include pay incentives based on gains in student test scores, however.

“I understand the attraction of politicians and those removed from the educational setting, why that seems like a good idea. We like to pay more to those who are the best at something,” Carlson said.

Fields disagrees with Carlson’s assumption education is different from other fields.

“In any other job in America, you get evaluated in how efficient you are and how well you do your job. The only way to evaluate is based on student performance,” he said.

In addition to AB 393, Davis has introduced legislation to give state rewards to local school districts for performance bonuses for teachers and other school staff. Student results would be used as a basis for determining which school districts receive rewards.

“It should play a role but not be the sole factor,” said Davis. “I think you can have a portfolio of measures that leads to a robust merit pay system.”

Other Reforms

Besides advocating student-centered changes to teacher compensation, Davis has introduced AB 306, which would eliminate the 2008 statewide cap of 5,250 students in virtual charter schools. Total enrollment jumped from 3,100 to nearly 5,000 in one year, wiping out expectations the cap would provide at least a few years of breathing room.

“To me that demonstrates the success and niche of virtual schools in Wisconsin and across the country,” he said.

Healy agrees the cap puts Wisconsin out of line for receiving federal grant money.

“Race to the Top funds are to be targeted to states that do not ‘restrict student enrollment in charter schools,'” he said. Both the prohibition on linking teacher pay to student results and the enrollment cap “would qualify as impediments to improved student performance,” said Healy.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.