Less Consensus, PleaseWEAC Support Weakens Reform Efforts

Another application for the federal Race to the Top program, another rejected application. 

Wisconsin has been rejected twice now for a program to reward educational reforms. Worse, the state has not been a finalist in either round.

Race to the Top had it’s launch right here in Wisconsin. President Barack Obama came to Wright Middle School in Madison to announce the new competition. Standing beside him were Governor Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. The latter was being wooed by Obama to run for Governor.

Despite the high expectations for Wisconsin’s chances and our seeming home-court advantage, Wisconsin finished in the bottom half of the applicants, 26th out of 41 applicants. Doyle said at the time that Wisconsin would “take to heart” the criticisms Wisconsin’s application received. The criticisms included the inability of the State Superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction to take action against individual schools rather than entire districts. Another criticism was the lack of “buy in” by much of the educational establishment.

The Doyle Administration and the Democrats in the Legislature dealt with both of those criticisms. The state DPI was given some expanded powers and everyone held hands and sang Kumbaya around the application for the next round of Race to the Top. Doyle announced, “In round two, Wisconsin’s teachers, school leaders and communities stand ready to accept the Race to the Top challenge.”

Well, not quite. The legislature and the governor decided to punt on the really hard issue of tying teacher evaluation, including retention, promotion and salary, to academic performance by the students.

Imagine a company whose sales force was unaccountable for not making any sales. Such a company would not last long, let alone receive additional capitalization from the stockholders.

Unfortunately in Wisconsin, the teachers unions have a counter-productive influence over the state legislature, our board of directors. Of course the teachers unions supported this round’s application for Race to the Top. They prevented the reform that would have given the application a fighting chance.

Given the “educational reforms” the legislature did take up, one would think that the biggest reason Wisconsin’s application failed was the number of Indian mascots in the state. Not only did the Democrats in the legislature give the state DPI broad power to police the mascots for offensiveness, the state DPI was swift to use it.

Already one school in Wisconsin has been ordered to change the mascot and team name or else faces severe penalties. The Osseo Fairchild School District has one year to drop the Chieftains logo or face fines of $1000 per day.

Two more will soon be answering complaints about their school mascots, and the likely outcome is the mascot death penalty. Over 30 schools in Wisconsin are on the target list for DPI corrective action on this issue.

Imagine if the state DPI could act as swiftly if a parent complained about a school not teaching the children to read or do math, with the same penalties. How many schools would be on the target list? What would be the effect on Wisconsin’s application for Race to the Top?

Unfortunately, while the legislature worried about team logos, other states worried about how to improve their applications for the Race to the Top program and passed real reforms. Wisconsin’s application was rejected again. Instead of competing as a finalist, Wisconsin again finished in the bottom half.

When Wisconsin’s application was submitted a second time in June, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers announced, “We looked at comments from the reviewers of our first application, and we have focused our efforts on improving and building a stronger application. It is very gratifying to see the overwhelming support from the local school districts, school boards, administrators, and teachers in this effort.”

Maybe a little less consensus building and a little more leadership would have served the state better. When everybody’s happy it means nothing has changed.

Wisconsin was once considered a leader in educational reform. We were pioneers in parental school choice under Governor Tommy Thompson. Under Doyle, Wisconsin has fallen to below average. How many more applications will have to fail before the consensus that shields our schools from having to produce is finally shaken?

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute