Wisconsin Reforms Miss First Race to the Top Deadline

Published March 1, 2010

The Wisconsin Legislature failed to approve two of several education reforms Gov. Jim Doyle (D) urged to boost the state’s application for $254 million in federal funds by the January 19 deadline.

Warring factions divide states nationwide as they compete for a slice of $4 billion in Race to the Top, a pot of federal money from the 2009 stimulus bill the U.S. Department of Education will divide among winning states in April and September. States will receive money for committing to reforms meeting federal criteria and recommendations. The program has intensified continuing disagreements among districts, unions, teachers, and parents on exactly which policies help kids learn.

Wisconsin is no exception. In December, Doyle called a special session of the legislature to consider two bills granting Milwaukee’s mayor and the state superintendent more power over the city’s desperately failing, leadership-strangled public schools. On January 5 more than 100 people testified during 12-hour hearings on bills in Milwaukee.

“One thing is very clear. There is not unanimity on how to proceed to help the Milwaukee public schools,” said state Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine), chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “Secondly, we heard strongly the status quo with the Milwaukee public schools is not acceptable. We heard that from everybody.”

Gov Switched Strategies

The governor decided to ignore the stalled legislation in Wisconsin’s Race to the Top application. Instead, his 664-page proposal said the state will create and administer more broad-based tests, spend more on training teachers and principals, increase financing for Milwaukee schools (including charter schools), and develop more resources for math and science education.

The governor also floated the idea of removing caps on property taxes and increasing aid to school districts if they commit to reducing costs and improving student performance. However, that proposal did not appear on the state’s Race to the Top application, and it had not been introduced as a bill in the legislature at press time.

Lehman said he expects little action on statewide education reform until the legislature has had more time to hammer out compromises among the various factions.

“We have a lot of energy here,” Lehman said. “We just need to direct it in a way that the two houses of the legislature and the governor can agree with.”

Unions Prefer Delay

The factions appear very far apart, however. The state’s strong teachers unions resisted entreaties to implement reforms quickly to increase Wisconsin’s chances of receiving Race to the Top funds, saying the state needs “collaborative” and “sustainable” school reform.

“Any one-time influx of money may start some good programs and do some good things, but we really think Wisconsin needs some comprehensive school funding reform,” said Christina Brey, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union.

Rather than looking to strengthen the state’s application, Brey and Lehman both noted states can reapply later this year for a second round of awards. The deadline for second-round grants is June 1, and the U.S. Department of Education will announce the winners in September.

Wisconsin’s first-round application stressed early childhood development, efforts to close racial achievement and high school graduation gaps, collecting and analyzing more student and district data, and developing good teachers and principals. Doyle requested $254 million from Race to the Top coffers.

Budget Woes Worsen

Federal stimulus funds staved off a deficit in the state’s budget in 2009 and 2010, but they won’t prevent a $2.2 billion deficit next year without drastic changes, says a January report by the nonprofit Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

Schools across the state have cut budgets, getting less state money this year while still fearing to raise property taxes, said Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

“If the state is not meeting its commitment, you’re putting more pressure on property taxes,” Rossmiller said. “Without state money, you have to be able to control costs, not just revenues. The current system is not sustainable. There’s a misalignment between costs and revenues.”

Joy Pavelski ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.