Sunday, April 1, 2012

Issue #56 April 1, 2012- School Board (and other) Elections, Public School Funding, Achievement Gap and Recalls Finalized!!

What This Is…
Issue #56- April 1, 2012
In this issue: April 3rd School Board Elections, Public School Funding, Achievement Gap, Recalls Finally Finalized!!

April 3 Elections…
With all the statewide political action going on it might be easy for the local elections scheduled for April 3rd to be overlooked.  Americans have a tendency to show up in relatively larger numbers for national elections, but virtually ignore elections with only local races on the ballot.  There are many reasons that people don't vote in local elections, but to not cast a ballot is a mistake.  A mistake that can have huge negative repercussions.

The April 3rd elections are important for many reasons…

-The local positions being filled will have an immediate, direct impact on public policy and public services in our communities.

-They provide an opportunity to build voter participation leading up to the recall elections in May and June.    

-The GAB is estimating that only 35% of eligible voters will participate in the spring elections, that means each person's vote is a higher percentage of the total than in an election with greater participation.  This allows for special interest groups, who may be a minority of the electorate, to take control of our local governments.

-Any time a citizen gets a chance to express their opinion through a ballot they should take advantage of the opportunity.

There are many different races being held in municipalities around Wisconsin. 

This is a confusing time to cast a ballot.  You will hear many different "facts" about voting and there is no doubt that some groups will try and confuse voters in order to limit participation.  While things can change quickly, the injunction issued against the Voter ID law has eliminated the need to bring a photo ID to prove your identity.  Other rules, such as the need to provide proof of residency if registering to vote at the polls remain.  If you have questions or concerns you should contact your county or municipal clerks office or use the GAB website.  Don't rely on information from other sources, we've seen a rise in false information being given out by different organizations in recent elections.  Your vote matters, be sure to know your rights and responsibilities so you can exercise you right to vote.

It is also important to keep up to date on any changes that may occur.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court is preparing to hear the suit against the Voter ID law.  We saw how quickly and controversially they acted in their ruling on the implementation of Act 10, so it wouldn't be terribly surprising if they behaved in a similar fashion in this case.

Karl Rove may have dismissed the value of endorsements after Sarah Palin's support of Newt Gingrich in the Alaska primary failed.  Rove stated that "endorsements don't mean snot."  Knowing that I have even less influence than Palin I still want to express my thoughts on the upcoming elections.

Madison School Board
The elections being held for Madison School Board Seats 1 and 2 are of primary concern to Madison educators like me.  The Madison Public Schools face a host of challenges in the near future and our school board will be ultimately responsible for making the final decisions about what direction our school system takes. 
Because of the changes caused by the passage of Act 10 school boards will be able to set the policies that district employees must follow.  This includes all aspects of employment currently covered by our collective bargaining agreements as well as the programs and curriculum that we use.  If you look at the actions of other school boards around the area and state you can see why Madison educators are concerned.        

However, our working conditions and compensation only a part of the issues that concern members of MTI.  Madison educators have always worked hard to deliver quality instruction to the students we serve.  Cuts to school budgets, increased testing and the threat of privatization are some of the problems that have undermined our efforts and hurt our students.  We need a school board that will stand up for public education in Madison.  Individuals elected to the school board have a responsibility to oversee the public schools and should not transfer their authority to private organizations who are not accountable to the citizens of Madison.  Our school board members must be ready to fight to defend our students, our educators and our public school system. 

The recent announcement by Superintendent Nerad that he plans to retire at the end of his contract (and potentially resign earlier if he receives a job offer in Nebraska) puts even more pressure on the Madison School Board.  The district has struggled with Achievement Gaps for a long time, but Superintendent Nerad, had started the process of developing a new plan to address the needs of our students.  With his retirement, MMSD now faces uncertainty in the leadership of this effort and must step up to take charge in our fight to educate all students well. 

With all the anti-union rhetoric in the air there has been a strong reaction to the endorsement of two candidates, Arlene Silveira and Michael Flores, by Madison Teachers Incorporated.  It isn't unusual for groups that have an interest in the outcome of an election to endorse a candidate, so why the uproar about MTI endorsing these candidates?  It shouldn't come as any surprise given that Madison's local media has not been overly supportive of educators in the past.  However, I hope that citizens will take the time to look at the candidates and form their own opinions and not cast a vote in a knee-jerk reaction to any endorsement.

The argument goes that union members are drones who cast ballots based on what the union bosses tell them to do.  However, it has been my experience that educators in Madison are prone to doing whatever their hearts and minds tell them, regardless of what MTI leaders say.  Keeping that in mind I know that my fellow union members (and I) have thrown our support behind the two candidates endorsed by MTI, Silveira and Flores.  (An endorsement that was earned through a democratic process in which nearly 100% of the educators at my school took part)

There are many reasons for our support, but among the most important are:

-A commitment to public schools over privatized public schools.  There is no way to ignore Nichols and Burke's support of Madison Prep, even in a non-instrumentality form.  I strongly believe that if we allow a school like Madison Prep to be established in Madison we will see a slide towards privatization and a situation like they have in Milwaukee.  A city with multiple school systems that use public funding, and a place where citizens are frequently confused about where their tax dollars go and where accountability for these funds lies.

We must remember that every district in the United States is facing these same issues of Achievement Gaps.  Madison has an opportunity to be innovative and proactive in developing ways to address student achievement.  We can learn from other cities and take what works, but privatization is not a proven method of improving outcomes for all students.      

-A commitment to the educators of Madison Public Schools.  We have a highly trained and capable workforce here that needs support to help students achieve.  There will be a need for changes to be made as we work to address the Achievement Gap and other issues, but both Silveira and Flores have expressed a strong commitment to respecting educators as well as students.  Once again the Madison Prep proposal which saw non unionized employees in some positions and a request for employees to work longer hours without additional compensation are examples of ideas that don't respect educators.  Other issues like educator evaluations and insurance issues will need to be addressed in a fair and equitable manner.    

-A desire to unite our community and promote cooperation between schools and the community.  We need to work together to improve outcomes for all of our students.  This means finding ways to unite our community behind initiatives that will work.  The MMSD proposal for addressing the Achievement Gap and the listening sessions that were implemented to discuss it are an example of how to build consensus.  The issues that we are dealing with are difficult and so potentially divisive that we must have strong leadership to guide our progress in dealing with the challenges. 

-An interest in promoting change, but not radical, extreme change.  I don't dispute the need for us to look at new and innovative ways to improve outcomes for our students, however, the potential for positive change exists in our current system.  We have issues that can be dealt with by modifying our existing institutions and the more radical "reforms" touted by many groups don't have a proven track record of success.  Both Nichols and Burke talk a lot about change, but what kind of change will they support?

Seat 1- Nichelle Nichols vs. Arlene Silveira
Nichelle Nichols is the Vice President of Education and Learning at the Urban League of Greater Madison.  She was a supporter of Madison Prep, even in its non-instrumentality format.  Throughout the campaign she has spoken about the need for change because of the existing Achievement Gaps in Madison schools.  She thinks of herself as a "champion" for changes that will dramatically improve outcomes for all students.  Her three main priorities are to eliminate the Achievement Gaps, create a fair and balanced (anyone else cringe when they hear that combination of words?) employee handbook and attract middle-income families with quality schools. 

Arlene Silveira also speaks of the challenges faced by MMSD in the forms of our Achievement Gap, a ever shrinking budget and the changes created by the loss of the collective bargaining agreement.  She speaks of finding ways to get more "bang for the buck" in our schools while maintaining respectful debate.  Silveira also talks of a need to fight the privatization of our schools.  She is an experienced board member who understands the context surrounding the issues facing our public schools.

Seat 2 Mary Burke vs. Michael Flores
Mary Burke is a well known and well financed individual in the Madison community.  She touts her experience as a leader in many different groups and organizations.  She feels that it is important to create a challenging, engaging educational environment with quality teachers.  In addition she feels that schools must form partnerships with families and the community to help students reach their maximum potential.  School funding is also a problem faced by our public schools.  She strongly believes that now is a time for change in our education system.  In recent mailings received at my home she also feels the need take a negative campaign route against Mr. Flores.

Michael Flores is a relative newcomer to the political scene.  He speaks of concerns like the budget, the achievement gap and a lack of diversity in the MMSD staff.  He is committed to engaging the community in working with schools to address student achievement and build support for public schools.  He believes that education is a human right that all students should be able to receive.  He also provides direct, personal experiences in dealing with issues around the Achievement Gaps.        

Dane County Circuit Court
In normal years this election between Roger Allen and Ellen Berz would be well below the radar.  However, the fact that Roger Allen was appointed by Governor Walker has turned this into a more intense political conflict than usual.  Unfortunately, the tension and negative campaigning between candidates that exists at the Supreme Court level seems to be "trickling down" to local elections.  In statements both candidates speak about their opponent as being less experienced or tie them to outside influences.

Ellen Berz earned the endorsement of MTI in this race.   

Collective Bargaining Referendum
With all respect for Mr. Nichols I have to say that the collective bargaining referendum is the not the most important vote cast on April 3rd.  However, his point is valid, casting a yes vote sends a powerful message and will help build support as we head toward the recall elections to be held in a couple of months. 

Other Ways to Get Involved…
Voting is one of the most obvious and direct ways that citizens can influence the political process.  However, it isn't the only way to make positive change happen.  There are many issues that need our attention and getting involved in an organization or movement to enact progressive change is another valuable way for citizens to participate in creating constructive policies.  Wisconsinites have seen the power that getting involved can have as we've fought to reclaim our state.  It is important and rewarding work and can take political, social, economic or other forms.  If concerned citizens don't take action then we leave the fate of our society in the hands of a small number of self-interested individuals and groups.

Here are a couple of areas where citizens can have a direct impact on the quality of our public schools.      

Public School Funding…
Our system for funding public education is inefficient, inequitable and unsustainable and has been this way for a long time.  The existing system is confusing and makes every school district's budget a source of controversy that leads to cuts in programs and ill feelings towards public schools.  Over time we've seen public education funding reduced in scope at state and national levels while costs for educating students have risen.

Our current system for funding public education is antiquated and based on property values, not the income levels of people who live in the area.  Thus we see communities with high property values, but high poverty rates receiving less aid than they need to educate their students.  Wisconsin has the resources available to properly fund our schools, but our political leaders have chosen to present a misleading picture that vilifies our schools and paints them as money hungry vacuums.   

There are plans out there that go a long way towards correcting the problems and implementing more transparent, coherent and sustainable ways of funding our schools.  Organizations like the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign  and the Institute for Wisconsin's Future are supporting initiatives like Wisconsin's Fair Funding for our Future Plan and need your support. 

Adequately funding schools would help reduce the friction between different groups and allow districts more flexibility in addressing student achievement and other needs.  What we had before Walker's budget wasn't good and his budget has devastated public schools (despite other information you may have heard from Mr. Walker's supporters). 

Achievement Gap…
The Achievement Gaps are made up of real students who are more than just  statistics.  These students are important to all of us and we all have a responsibility to support efforts to help all our children get a quality education that they can use to improve their future (and by extension all of our futures).  Helping others is part of being in a civilized society.  It should concern us that much of the rhetoric we hear from the right is about individuals and not about our society as a collective whole. 

Here in Madison sincere discussion has begun about ways to address the achievement gap.  We are nearing the end of the public listening sessions where opinions, ideas and input were given by concerned citizens.  However, that doesn't end our responsibility to continue to be aware of the Gaps and to look for the best ways to address the needs of all students. 

Achievement Gaps are big problems without easy fixes.  However, every effort in a positive direction gets us one step closer to a system where all students have an equal opportunity.  One example of a step in the right direction is the 4K program started in Madison.  This program can help address the obvious problem we have, where less than half of the "minority" students coming into MMSD are deemed ready for Kindergarten.        

Discussion about the district's plan will continue and concerned citizens have a responsibility to stay informed about the progress in finalizing the plan.  With the obvious importance of the need for dealing with our Achievement Gaps we can't afford to ignore our school district's plan to address the issue. 

The time is now for the people of Wisconsin to step up, get involved and make our state a place we can live in with pride and dignity.  There are so many ways to get involved and we must use the energy that has been generated by recent events to improve the quality of life in our state for all citizens.  Doing nothing will create a path of no resistance for leaders like Governor Walker as they "reform" Wisconsin into a state of 'haves' and 'have nots'.  No one individual can make change in all areas, but everyone can do their part in restoring the values that make Wisconsin a great place to live.  It starts by participating in the electoral process and continues through taking part in other actions that build a better society.  Union mantras like "An Injury to One is an Injury to All" and "Solidarity Forever" truly take on a life of their own in a community where we are working together for the common good. 

Just Be Careful What Groups You Support
While citizen participation keeps our democracy functioning and strong.  Citizens have an obligation to be careful about the groups they join, petitions they sign, etc.  There are many groups with great sounding names, like Stand for Children, whose actions don't match their words (just love the Tea Party names, who could be against prosperity?).  Many of these groups claim to be active in promoting the rights of parents and students, but actually are front groups for other interests.  Stand for Children provides a great example of an organization that is anti-public education while sounding the exact opposite.  Their goals to destroy educator unions and privatize education frequently undermine the efforts of parents who join the organization to support their schools.  

Parent trigger laws and other "parent engagement strategies" lure citizens into lending their support to an effort to improve public schools.  The resulting actions can divide a community, damage public schools and lead to more privatization of our school systems.  Anyone interested in joining a group or supporting a reform effort needs to read and research carefully before committing to any action.  Once the process of "reforming" a school system starts it is very difficult to stop.  "Reforms" often take a community down a path that the majority of citizens didn't want to travel.  This petition is a good example of the rhetoric used to drum up support for a movement that is actually less about school choice and more about creating a For Profit educational system.   

One signer of this petition added the comment, "With the attacks upon public education growing in absurdity and in volume, parents should have more authority to demand that their tax dollars FIX the problems, not subvert public education."  However, if you read the page the petition is on you will find this statement, "Under the "parent trigger" law, if a majority of parents in a school attendance zone sign a petition, they gain legal authority to transform their school. This may involve bringing in a new school leader or putting the school under the management of a high-performing charter school operator, among other options."  Doesn't sound like empowering families or protecting public education to me.  Just look at the results in districts that have gone this route.  People need to think carefully and do their research before supporting any movement or organization.

It's On…
While it may have seemed inevitable, there is a sense of relief that the GAB has officially set the recall election dates.  Until this happened I, along with many others, feared that some type of maneuver by the GOP would undo the work of recall activists.  Of course,  just because the recalls are set, the Walker administration and the Republicans in Wisconsin will still look for ways to bend the rules to their advantage.

Do these two gentlemen look like political opponents?  Gary Ellerman (on the left) is running as a Democrat in the primary against Lori Compas.  The winner takes on Scott Fitzgerald (on the right) in the recall election on June 5th.

As of now the field of Democratic candidates for governor stand at 4.  While we should focus our attention on the elections this week, it's never too early to start learning more about the candidates.  It is also important that you work to make sure candidates you support get their nomination papers filed with enough signatures to get them on the ballot.

Kathleen Falk for Wisconsin

We can't forget that there are other races, including one for Lt. Governor.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if Walker wins (obviously much better if he loses the recall), but Mahlon Mitchell were to defeat Kleefisch.  Then after the John Doe investigation concludes, Walker is removed from office and Mitchell steps in.  Every election matters. 

The senate recalls will also be very important to our ability to stop the GOP takeover of Wisconsin.

Collective Bargaining In The Courts…
Friday brought good news from Federal court as parts of Act 10 were struck down.  The court's ruling will allow unions to collect dues through payroll deduction.  It also eliminates the requirement that unions recertify annually by having more than 50% of all members vote to keep their union.  The battle in the courts is not over, but this certainly is a victory for public sector unions in Wisconsin.

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