Been down so long it looks like up

The author of this blog is Thomas J. Mertz is a Madison parent and advocate for improved educational opportunities. He is a founder of For All Madison Students and other local groups and is an active member of Opportunity to Learn-Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools. A version of this post originally appeared at Advocating on Madison Public Schools.

The troubles of the Bonduel School District in rural Wisconsin made me think of Richard Farina’s “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.”

For too long school funding in Wisconsin and around the nation has made cuts the new normal so difficult that any relief appears like a step forward. Actually, as in Bonduel, these small steps forward don’t come close to making up for the giant steps backward of the last two decades.

A couple of weeks ago, editorial boards, politicians, and school-funding apologists praised an insignificant increase in aid to Wisconsin schools. We can’t let their anecdotes distract from the big picture. Senator John Lehman, a Democrat from Racine, has promised to convene the Education Committee to “examine how these $1.6 billion cuts have hurt Wisconsin schools.”

Sorry, that’s not enough.

It’s a good start, but Democrats had their chance. We need more than additional proof of what we already know: Cuts in public school funding, coming from either party, aren’t good for our kids, our communities, or their futures.

We need workable plans to fund our schools at a level and in a manner that puts the needs of our students first and provides them with opportunities to learn.

The percent change in per student funding in Wisconsin from FY2011 to FY2012 was the fourth worst in the nation. The tiny little step forward for the following year is what has folks in Bonduel so excited. The small, rural district is one of 155 among Wisconsin’s 424 that will see a one-time $50 per student increase. Bonduel is on of the lucky ones, because 267 districts will see another decrease.

As I said, though, the very small step forward doesn’t begin to make up for the damage already done. Peter Behnke, the district’s administrator, gushed good news for the taxpayers who can expect a 3.3 percent decrease in their school property taxes due to an estimated $250,000 increase in state aid, to about $5.6 million.

Missing from the story is that the new aid doesn’t come close to restoring state funding levels to what they were three years ago and leaves state aid per member for 2012-13 an estimated $671.55 below what it was in 2007-08. The fact that Superintendent Behnke can “gush” over the 2012-13 projections is evidence of how far down we have been pushed.

It’s time to push back, up, and out of this hole. Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Tony Evers’ “Fair Funding for Our Future” is a start. It won’t, however, be much more than that─a start─ unless it restores the devastating cuts of the previous state budget and puts resources back into the classroom. Wisconsin needs to take advantage of its fiscal and economic capacity, such as the one-cent sales tax increase in “A Penny for Kids”, to begin the reinvestment in our public schools.

After all the slings and arrows aimed at educators, the cuts, the failed recall, and the still slow economy I know many are like the folks in Bonduel: Ready to accept minor improvements as cause for celebration. We absolutely can’t do that ….. we can’t let down look like up. We have to keep our eyes on the prize, keep on pushing, and not forget what is right just because it seems out-of-reach.

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