Sunday, February 24, 2013

Issue #102 February 24, 2013- Primary Results, Organizing and the Budget

Primary Results, Democracy Threatened?…
A few thoughts about the February 19th primary…
The results of the Supreme Court race weren't terribly surprising.  There was little doubt that Justice Roggensack would advance and with the support of many key groups, Ed Fallone, was in good shape to be her opposition in April's election.  We should expect the usual Supreme Court race in Wisconsin to shape up over the next few weeks.  This means lots of rhetoric, lots of money from influential groups, and enough negative advertising to make everyone uncomfortable and frustrated with the process. 
It should be well understood by all Wisconsinites that this race will have a huge impact on our state's immediate future.  The way that legislation and policy is made under the Walker administrations rule insures that our courts will see lots of litigation and will play a pivotal role in deciding what laws and actions are implemented. 
If you remove the obvious connections that Roggensack has to the conservative base in Wisconsin, I still have significant concerns about her philosophy as a justice.  I have always believed that our system of government relied on "checks and balances" between the different branches to prevent any single entity from becoming the sole holder of power.  The Supreme Court exists as the final arbitrator in disputes over the constitutionality of any act by the executive or legislative branches.  Justice Roggensack operates under the belief that she should work to, "…Continue to uphold the legislative intent of the state Senate and Assembly."  A belief that I heard her articulate on Vickie McKenna's radio show last week as well.  Shouldn't our justices work to uphold the state Constitution and not the intent of the legislature?

The low turnout is an embarrassment and demonstrates the unwillingness of our state's citizens to fulfill their responsibilities as the cornerstone of democracy.  Is it really a democratic action if only about 1 in 10 people participate?  The fact that we saw such a poor turnout in a state that should recognize the importance of any election shows us that we still haven't learned our lessons from the recent past.  We must do everything possible to get more people to the polls in April or we will continue to face a government that only represents the few and not the many.

We are becoming a society of special interests and this is undermining our government's ability to govern and our ability to function as a unified nation.  The fact of the matter is that with a small number of voters participating, these off year elections have become an opportunity for special interest groups to insert themselves into the power structure of our government.  With most people sitting out the elections it only takes a small number of dedicated voters to swing an election in any direction.  The candidates who are elected wield the same representative power if they receive the votes of 6% of the population as if they garner the support of 96% of the eligible voters.  Suddenly our "representative democracy" really isn't so representative is it?

Of equal concern is the continuing division of the electorate into special interest groups based on demographics or other unifying interests.  As our nation stratifies along racial, gender, religious, economic or other lines we see less cooperation among groups and more "infighting" between those whose interests are often very similar.  This can be observed in the conflicts that arise in efforts to address issues like the Achievement Gaps in our schools, the disparity in incarceration rates, the economic inequalities that exist in our nation and in countless other areas where we see injustice and inequality in our society.

That our nation has some huge problems dealing with issues of social justice shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.  Yet our ways of dealing with them are in many cases hampering efforts to address the problems we face.  Instead of uniting together and finding common ground we often find ourselves forming task forces, committees, or organizations that in themselves are segregated and divisive. 

As a white, middle-class (for now) male should my opinions about issues of race or gender be of lesser value?  Shouldn't I have just as much interest in resolving the challenges we face and improving the opportunities for all my fellow citizens?  Wouldn't we find more lasting and powerful solutions if our organizing efforts centered around finding common ground across all demographics instead of only reaching out to those who are "directly impacted"?  Aren't we all impacted by the inequities that exist for any of our citizens?

Of course it is difficult to mobilize widespread support for an issue that appears to only impact a smaller demographic group.  Take for example some of these statistics for African-American citizens of Dane County (this information was compiled by the Urban League of Greater Madison).
·         In 2011, 25.2% of Blacks in Dane County were unemployed compared to 4.8% of Whites.

·         Just 55.6% of Black men and 62.6% of Black women in Dane County were employed in 2010 compared to 72% of White men and 68% of White women.

·         In 2011, the median household income for Blacks in Dane County was $20,664, less than 1/3 the “median income” of White households in Dane County ($63,673). It was also less than the household income for Blacks statewide ($24,399) and nationwide ($33,223). This means that the majority of Blacks in Dane County live in poverty while most whites are upper middle class.

·         Contrary to what some believe, only 8.1% of Blacks in Dane County drew cash public assistance in 2010. However, this was much higher than the .9% rate among Whites. Additionally, 34.2% of all Blacks in Dane County received Food stamps/SNP benefits because their low-incomes qualified them for it.

·         In 2011, 74.8% of Black children in Dane County were living in poverty compared to 5.5% of White children. The poverty rate among Black children in Dane County was 50% higher than the poverty rate among Black children statewide, and nearly twice as high as the black child poverty rate nationwide. The poverty rate among Black children grew from less than 50% in 2006 to 75% in 2011, while the poverty rate among White children remained stable.

·         In 2010, 86% of all Black, 85% of all Latino, 49% of Asian and 18% of White students enrolled in the Madison Metropolitan School District were poor (qualified for free-and-reduced price lunch). Students of color now comprise 55% of the total enrollment in MMSD (2012-13 school year).

·         In 2011, nearly half (48.1%) of Dane County’s Black third graders failed to meet proficiency standards in reading, compared to 10.9% of White third graders. Similarly, nearly half (47.7%) of Dane County’s Black eighth graders failed to meet proficiency standards in math, compared to 10.4% of White eighth graders.

·         In 2012, 50% of Black students attending the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), Dane County’s largest public school system and the state’s second largest, failed to graduate from high school.

·         Just 3% of Black high school seniors attending all four of MMSD’s comprehensive high schools in 2011-12 were academically ready for college according to high school graduation rates and results from the ACT college entrance exam.

·         In 2010, only 20% of Blacks age 25 and older held bachelor’s degrees compared to 46% of Whites, 14% of Hmong and 22% of Hispanics.

·         In 2010, just 19% of Blacks in Dane County owned their homes while 81% were renters. The same year, 64% of Whites owned their homes while 34% rented. This was the exact same rate of homeownership for Blacks in Dane County 1990.

·         In 2010, Blacks owned less than 1% of all businesses in Dane County, while comprising 5% of the County’s total population.

·         In 2011, according to data provided by the Wisconsin Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Minority Business Development and City of Madison, there were are only four black-owned businesses with 10 or more full-time employees in Dane County.

·         Low marriage rates are also challenging the wealth accumulation and financial stability of Black families more than other groups in Dane County. In 2010, 55% of Black women in Dane County were not married, compared to 33% of White, 40% of Hmong and 35% of Latino women.

·         In 2010, 75% of Black births in Dane County were to unmarried mothers, compared to 20% of White births in Dane County. This was somewhat consistent with national trends, as 73% of Black births and 29% of White births were to unmarried mothers the same year. While births to single mothers were 4 times higher among Blacks than Whites in Wisconsin in 2010, the Black child poverty rate was 14 times greater than that of Whites.

·         In 2006, a study by a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor found that 47% of African American males between the ages of 25-29 in Dane County were either incarcerated, on probation or under some form of court supervision. This percentage continues to hover around 45% with a significant number of men who’ve been released from jail and prison reporting significant difficulties with finding employment.

Startling statistics, definitely.  The Urban League uses these statistics as a rallying call to gather members of the African-American community to work to address them.  I certainly don't challenge the need for members of this community to work to address issues that directly impact them, but also argue that the conditions of any group impacts our community as a whole.  Will any group, operating in relative isolation be able to impact their situation as effectively as the same group operating united with others in the community?  Taking the Civil Rights Movement as an example it appears clear to me that it is only through increasing the diversity in a movement can we hope to create real change. 

The reality of modern America is that a vast majority of our population, independent of race or ethnicity, is losing their ability to influence their socio-economic conditions.  The loss of power is used as a wedge to separate groups and to increase the status and power of those with access to decision makers.  This is another reason why inequality shouldn't be an issue addressed by any single demographic group.  If we don't work to educate and engage all people then we will see a majority of citizens operate under the false assumption that certain issues don't impact them. 

The challenge is to find ways to bring people together and to make the issues of inequality relevant to all people.  It is too easy for any of us to ignore the challenges faced by others and concentrate solely on our own interests.  This problem is compounded by the existing prejudices and stereotypes that members of different communities have regarding each other.  We are a society that is divided in so many ways. 

The problems we face are compounded by the rhetoric and hyperbole that is thrown around in public forums.  For example, there were several comments after the school board primary that Madison's electorate was racist because Ananda Mirilli finished 3rd.  I can't speak for all the voters, but most of the people I know voted for the candidate of their choice based on other criteria than race or even gender.  I also can't speak about the politics that may or may not have gone on behind the scene.  The unfortunate reality of our current situation is that every action is viewed through a lens of mistrust, skepticism and outright dislike for those with opposing views.  This isn't to discount the real racism that does exist, but I believe that to make blanket statements about large groups of people does more harm than good.

The need for unity between groups and diversity in coalitions formed to promote positive change goes way beyond issues around race or ethnicity.  Any group that is working to create a power base to operate from needs to engage multiple groups in order to succeed.  Public employees can't win their fight without the support of all labor.  Defenders of public education can't successfully defend our public schools without going to the community as a whole.  We must even try to engage our opponents in dialog and build relationships with those who have opposing viewpoints whenever possible.  

In the end we must continue to work at the individual level to create unity out of the separations that are entrenched in all aspects of our national culture.  We need to find ways to celebrate our differences while building an identity as a nation that is working towards meeting the lofty expectations that we have so often expressed for our society.  We must remain conscious of our existing challenges while looking towards a future where we can see beyond our differences and recognize the value that every person has in a just and fair civilization.

Education Races…
The upcoming races for Seats 3, 4 and 5 on Madison's School Board will be very important as the district faces important issues and decisions during the next year.  This board will face continuing pressure to privatize our schools in order to address the achievement gap.  It will also be instrumental in the continually evolving labor relations situation that has been created by the actions of state Republicans.  They will also be working with a new superintendent who will very likely bring some new philosophies and ideas to the discussions around Madison's public schools.
One of the races, that for Seat #5, changed dramatically as Sarah Manski withdrew from the race.  This just after winning the primary election on Tuesday.
Tony Evers also will be involved in an important race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.  It should be obvious that we public schools in Wisconsin can't afford to have a conservative who supports privatization and cuts to education in office at the state level.  Tony Evers has spoken against the "reforms" offered by Governor Walker and other GOP officials.   

It's Not About Education…
What is immensely frustrating to supporters of public education is the reality that so many of the "reforms" offered to "fix" our schools have very little to do with education.  Instead of addressing the real needs of our educational system, we are seeing initiatives launched that promote profits for a few and advance the goals of special interest groups over proposals that would benefit a majority of our students.
One example of this is the effort to expand the voucher system to more Wisconsin school districts.  Whether these vouchers are for students in general education, or those with special needs the impact on school districts and the families they serve are negative and harmful.      

Even businesses in education aren't exempt from the unfair practices imposed by GOP leaders.

Scott Walker's budget contains many parts that harm our public schools.  We are supposed to be grateful for any increases in funding after decimating public school's finances in the last budget, but these "modest increases" are at best a token offering.  At worst they are a smokescreen to make Walker appear moderate to the masses as we build towards a 2014 gubernatorial race.  If nobody who is directly involved in education seems to support Walker's proposals, then whose interests does this budget represent?  

Budget fight could be looming in the state Senate : Ct

There is no denying that the continuing assault on public education and educators has had an impact on those in the profession. 

We can't afford to ignore the continuing assaults on all public employees in Wisconsin.  Public educators are only one part of the public employee ranks.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Issue #101 Responsibility, Tuesday's Primary and Education

Words mean something, that is a concept that we learn early in life.  A chair is a chair, that person over there is "mom".  Defining people, places and things with words is an important part of learning to communicate with others.  Being able to share our ideas clearly and concisely is a skill that we spend our lives developing in formal settings like school, and in informal communication with friends and family.  As an elementary educator, a significant portion of my work day is spent trying to help students improve their abilities to communicate in spoken and written formats. 
I'm sure you noticed that I mentioned defining people, places and things and immediately thought "nouns".  My students are very adept at answering the question, "What is a noun?" with this litany.  However, when you add the last part of the definition, that not only is a noun a person, place or thing, but also an idea, my students are less comfortable.  After all, most of them experience a noun as something that you can recognize with one of your senses.  Words like freedom, justice and responsibility are nouns too, but much more difficult to define and recognize.
Merriam-Webster defines 'responsibility' as :
1) the quality or state of being responsible as  
a : moral, legal, or mental accountability
b : reliability, trustworthiness
2) something for which one is responsible : burden

The sentences used as examples for responsibility are interesting and tend to be negative in connotation.  They mention terrorists taking responsibility for an attack, chores and obligations.  Synonyms listed for responsibility include: Blame, fault, and liability.  Overall, responsibility is portrayed as something that isn't to be sought out.  No wonder my students cringe when I talk about responsibility and how they, as 4th and 5th graders, are getting older and ready to take on more responsibilities.  Using these definitions of responsibility I don't blame them for wanting to stay young and free of the cares of being a mature, responsible person. 

There is another side to responsibility.  By standing up for what is right and taking on issues that we know need addressing, we can not only improve the world around us, but also improve our own sense of well being and self esteem.  We can all recognize that feeling we get when we know that we rose to the occasion and accomplished something valuable.  The positive feelings are intensified when we recognize that we've gone above and beyond basic expectations and truly taken responsibility for the situation we were involved in.

When we look at the world around us we see many places where people are not accepting responsibility for themselves or fulfilling their obligations and duties to those around them.  We see that the world would be a better place if each person truly was accountable to themselves and to society as a whole.  People narrowly define their responsibilities and look out only for themselves or their immediate, short term interests.  We also have conflicts over just what accepting responsibility and being accountable looks like in specific circumstances.

It is a difficult balancing act that we must engage in as we navigate between our personal responsibilities and our accountability to our fellow citizens, the environment and to society as a whole.  These conflicting forces have been a topic for political, ethical and religious discussions throughout recorded history.  Just where do our ultimate responsibilities lie and how do we guide our actions to behave in a responsible manner?  Is responsibility a burden, an obligation, or something that we embrace as a vital part of living in a civilized society?  Is it possible for a diverse society with many different ways of defining what is valued to define abstract terms in ways that are useful and meaningful?

I would argue that, while the specific definitions are often impacted by an individual's personal belief system, we, as a society can, agree on ways to share our ideas about abstract terms like responsibility.  By discussing, demonstrating and sharing our values we can find commonalities that will move our society towards a more unified future.  In order for this to happen we must be willing to accept that our definitions may not be the only way to characterize a trait or a concept.  However, there are underlying similarities that most cultures, religions and societies share. 

It is somewhat na├»ve to think that we can limit our responsibilities to our those in our immediate, personal circles.  Each of us has an impact that extends to the communities we live in and even further.  The products I buy, the vote I cast, even my simple communications with others can have an influence that I may not even know about.  As an educator I have come to realize that it is often the smallest detail that I find out later has impacted a student's life.  Many have heard of the "Butterfly Effect", where a small event eventually triggers something larger.  It is important that we remember that our small actions do have an impact, one we may not even know about.    

Yet, at the same time we often feel powerless to exercise any influence over the things that we see happening around us.  We make our best effort and things still don't go as we would like them to.  Supporters of public education can certainly sympathize with this, as we watch something we value highly, attacked and decimated in so many ways. 

So, how do we demonstrate traits like responsibility in today's world?  We stand up for what we feel is right and express our thinking in positive ways.  We don't allow others to lead us in directions that we feel are harmful to what we value.  We engage in discussion and use our existing social and political structures to mediate conflicts.  We listen to others and consider their viewpoints.  All of us have a responsibility to ourselves, those close to us, and to society as a whole to exercise our rights and accept our responsibilities as citizens of the world we live in.  No one else can do this for us, it is up to each of us to be accountable for ourselves and act accordingly.

If we believe the quote, "In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve," then it is easy to see how we do have a responsibility to act to insure that those who represent us in any elected capacity truly do embody the values we share.  In the same way, we must act to influence any aspect of our lives or organization we belong to in order to make sure that our ideals are present and accounted for.  So, whether it's a democratic institution, or an organization like a school district that is governed by appointed or hired administrators it is up to us to make it be something that we are proud to be a part of.    

February 19- Primary Day…
Election season is upon us again.  Wisconsinites are bracing for another round of elections that probably will continue our recent trend in being contentious and divisive at the state level.  Voters have an opportunity to cast a vote in the primary election this Tuesday.  It is always important to exercise your right to vote, but in off-year primaries every voters power is magnified because of the low turnouts.  The GAB is projecting that less than 10% of the eligible voters will participate in Tuesday's election, so make your voice heard and get out to vote. 

Wisconsin Supreme Court
This primary features three candidates and will narrow the field to two for the April 2 election.  Pat Roggensack is the incumbent and is challenged by Vince Megna and Ed Fallone. 

The importance of this race can't be underestimated as the current court has a 4-3 conservative majority and our justices have been extremely partisan in recent years.  The fact that so many important decisions regarding collective bargaining and other issues will likely appear before the court makes this a vital office for progressives in Wisconsin to win.

Madison School Board Seat #5
Of no less importance for supporters of Madison Public Schools is the primary for Seat #5 between TJ Mertz, Sarah Manski and Ananda Mirilli.  The candidate I support in this race is Mertz.  He has been a presence at school board meetings for a long time, and has been a tireless advocate for public schools through his writing and actions. 

Defending Education…
If we truly value public education then we must act to protect and preserve it as a part of our society.  Whatever your role in public education whether as a parent, educator or concerned community member, we all have a responsibility to make sure that our public schools have advocates who are willing to speak out on issues that affect our schools.  The list of problems and "reforms" is long and the discussion has been shaped by those who want to make our schools more "businesslike", "productive" and even "profitable".   

The reality is that many of our potential advocates for public education are leaving the field for "greener pastures" that are less stressful and more widely supported.  Just like manufacturing and other industries we are seeing "downsizing" occurring.  Low pay, high stress, increased responsibility with limited support all contribute to the exodus of educators from the profession.  A small number of well connected groups and individuals stand to profit from these trends, while the rest of society loses a valuable resource.     

An example of how current trends are moving away from educating and looking only at the bottom line.  The MacKenzie Center has been an important place for my family and schools that I've been involved in.  For years my wife took her 5th grade classes for overnight field trips, and both of my sons have done overnights while in middle school.  Changing the focus of the Center could mean that many students would lose the opportunity to spend time in a beautiful outdoor setting.

Labor News…
Organized labor continues to look for ways to increase our influence, even in these difficult times.  Alliances and making connections is an important part of the current struggle.  Labor needs to find ways to compete with the big money that corporations are able to utilize.    

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Issue #100- Some "Humor", MMSD's New Superintendent and WI Pensions

When I first decided to write a blog I never imagined that I would ever write 100 posts, but here we are celebrating Issue #100!!  That this post comes a week before the 2 year anniversary of the start of the "Wisconsin Uprising" is another example of the reality that we aren't going to just forget what is being done in the name of "reform" here in Wisconsin or anywhere else for that matter.  I am proud to be a part of the resistance and proud to stand with my colleagues and friends to try and make positive changes in our society, wherever possible.

I want to thank my wife, Sandy, for revising and editing each week's edition.  For those of you who have waded through every page I've posted (and I know that there are a lot of them) you can appreciate her dedication to the cause.  Her support and suggestions make my writing better.  I also can't forget my sons who have had to listen to me talk about political, social and economic issues daily.  They offer me insights into what our youth think as well as assist me with my technological challenges.  They are growing into advocates for social justice as well.  I also need to thank my friends and union compatriots who provide me support, inspiration and share information that helps guide my writing.                                        

Thanks too, to all of you who have read an issue.  "Open, Forward, Thinking" has been viewed over 16,000 times in over 70 countries on 6 continents (anyone know anyone in Antarctica?).  I appreciate the feedback, pro and con, and hope that my posts have help keep you all informed and given you ways to become engaged in the struggle.  While the fight has been filled with challenges and is exhausting, I'm confident that we will be able to continue until we achieve our goals. 

For issue #100 I thought I would take a trip into fiction by sharing a few articles that I would either like, or fear, to see in the future.  You can judge for yourselves which are which.  At the end of the post I also have some information about the search for MMSD's superintendent position and some scary stuff about pensions.

Walker--"I Made Some Huge Mistakes"…
In a surprise press conference Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced that he has had a change of heart regarding many of the policies his administration has implemented during its first two years.  As we near the two year anniversary of the introduction of the controversial "Budget Repair Bill" or Act 10 attention is again focused on the Governor's actions during that volatile time in February of 2011.  Walker himself said, "It's just like any milestone date, anniversary or the New Year.  A time of reflection when you think back and forward and try to see what you could do better or different."

Walker went on to talk about the virtual elimination of collective bargaining for public employees and the cuts to education and summarized by saying, "I made some huge mistakes and went way too far."  He deflected some of the criticism away from himself and admitted that his administration thought that the budget cuts and restrictions on rights would have been more widely popular with Wisconsinites.  "My advisors shared information from some trusted sources that said good things about what we were going to do", Walker shared, "I heard all that stuff was supported by Coke and I figured that with all the polar bears and 'Have a Coke and a smile' stuff that people would just go along with everything." 

As far as correcting these mistakes, Walker points to the new legislative session as an opportunity to reverse the damage done to Wisconsin.  "Now that we know about the errors in judgment it should be pretty easy to simply repeal most of the things from the past couple of years.  I'm positive that my fellow Republicans will go along with what I say, they're usually pretty cooperative with my way of thinking,"  Walker predicted.  "I've decided that in the future we will try and listen to a wider range of ideas before acting, Maybe Pepsi offers political advice too?"

Finally, A Way to Measure Creativity…
National testing company WATED (We Assess and Test Everything for Dough), announced a new test that will measure student creativity and artistic ability.  The test fully aligns with Common Core standards and will allow school districts to not only create student creativity profiles, but will also allow employers to effectively measure the productivity and hold educators who don't teach specific academic subjects accountable for student achievement in creative endeavors.   

The test is administered on a computer and asks students to observe and answer questions about different images.  Student answers form a pattern on a ScanTron sheet which is then evaluated by company employees for aesthetic value.  "We realize that there is some subjectivity to this process, but our experts are really good at noticing good art," a company press release stated.  A second portion of the test asks students to listen to musical selections.  Their answers (with choices A-G) are then put on a musical staff and the tune is assessed by WATED employees.    

WATED is also looking into developing tests for students physical fitness in order to effectively assess Physical Education teachers.  So far these tests are proving to be more costly, and thus less attractive to school districts, due to the added expense of specially designed chairs that will be needed for the endurance portion of the test.    

Study Released, Teachers Are Taxpayers…
After two years of intensive study a bi-partisan legislative task has arrived at the conclusion that teachers and other public employees do pay taxes.  Senator Glenn Grothman (R) spoke for his party's representatives on the task force and stated, "We were stunned to find out that public employees and public educators are taxpayers and apparently contribute to our state's economy in some meaningful way.  Up to this point we (GOP legislators and Governor Walker) were convinced that we only needed to represent people who didn't "work" in the public sector or for some non-profit agency that helps people."

Governor Walker's office released a short statement expressing their amazement that this information could have eluded them for so long.  In the statement Governor Walker expressed concern that this revelation will "impact the way we do business here in Wisconsin".  His office admitted that up until this study was released they had been operating under the assumption that everything they had heard about public employees being "lazy and a drain on the economy" was true.  "Now we have to rethink our positions and attempt to represent the interests of a whole new group of taxpayers, that's going to be a lot of work!"   

Balancing Act…
The buzzword here in Wisconsin for the past two years has been balance, as in balance the budget at any cost.  However, recent economic information has come to light that, while a balanced budget is important, the way the balancing is carried out matters as much as the balancing itself.  Economists across Wisconsin came together at a recent convention and discussed Wisconsin's budget and economic woes. 

They concluded that the reason any government entity collects revenue from its citizens is to provide services, protection and stability for those who live in its jurisdiction.  In a press release the economists expressed the belief that, "Any budget created at any level should keep the bottom line in mind.  However, when balancing a budget the needs of all citizens must be considered."  The group also recognized that citizens who are able to meet their basic needs are more productive and work to improve society as a whole instead of struggling to barely get by. 

One economist even noted that protecting the environment must be a consideration as well, even if it sometimes takes away from tax revenue or the expansion of business.  "On day 3 of the convention I went outside and noticed just how beautiful Wisconsin's outdoors really are," the economist said.  "That got me thinking that sometimes money isn't the only thing that matters when we talk about fiscal concerns.  If we don't have a good environment to live in, then I guess all the money in the world won't really matter a lot, will it?" 

Policies Have Consequences…
The U.S. Department of Education today released results of a comprehensive study that has determined that policies enacted at any level of government frequently have an impact on students in classrooms across America.  The study concluded that policies from the Federal level (No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top) have had an impact on school districts and classrooms in all 50 states.  The study states, "Apparently the testing requirements and the consequences attached to them have created an environment that has led to less actual time to teach and more time spent testing." 

An unnamed source in the Department of Education said, "We were shocked to hear that our work here in Washington is undermining our public schools' credibility and ability to educate students.  We really just thought that making educators accountable would be a popular idea and several companies said they had a great way to do this."

Administrators, school boards and state level heads of education have been notified that their actions and policies also impact the schools in their states and districts.  According to the study ideas that originate in places outside of schools often have significant consequences when implemented in classrooms.  "What sounds like a good idea in a conference room, or in a committee, frequently looks different when educators in schools are forced to put the policy or procedure into practice," the study states.      

A conservative school reform group, TEST (Truth in Education Starts with Testing) said that they have mixed feelings about this discovery by educational bureaucrats.  "We've know for a long time exactly what we wanted to happen when policies like NCLB and RttT were enacted.  We were just hoping that the politicians would continue to think that they were improving public education and would continue to promote policies that we support," spokesperson for the group, Ivanna T'est Moore said.   

School Cited for Violating Child Labor Laws…
In a strange and unusual development a private charter school in Wisconsin was cited for violation of Child Labor Laws.  The list of violations was long and included the school's use of children to run a school store that sold products made in the school's shop and home economics classes.  According to the report filed earlier today, students worked up to 14 hours a day making and selling products with the profits being used to fund the school's publicity department and to pay administrative costs.  Students were also required to perform maintenance and custodial tasks around the school. 

School officials protested the allegations saying that they were providing an excellent curriculum that prepared students for career paths in manufacturing and retail careers.  "Our test scores and productivity were off the charts when you compare us to the public schools that coddle children," stated a school spokesperson.  "We don't see why we should be penalized when we are simply doing what the job creators of Wisconsin want educational entities to do."

When asked if students were exposed to higher order thinking, creative problem solving or the arts school officials responded by defending their curriculum.  "There's a lot to be said for learning to follow instructions and performing rote tasks.  When we saw a student with potential they would be promoted to shift manager and had the potential to advance even farther in our school's hierarchy," school officials noted. 

The complaint was filed after customers began receiving slips of paper mixed in with their change saying, "Support Our School's Effort to Unionize!"  Apparently students had been attempting to organize for the past several months and were meeting with resistance from school administration.  One customer who is named in the complaint stated, "It seemed a little odd.  At first I thought it was some sort of school project for the kids, but the look of fear on the cashier's face when I read the note while a teacher was nearby seemed way too realistic.  I figured either the kid was a great actor or they were really terrified so I thought I should at least have someone check it out."     

Sometimes Truth is Stranger than Fiction
We are constantly hearing conservatives say that we should be running our schools, public services and government like a business.  Well, when an organization that works to help public employees like the SWIB makes a sound business decision the conservatives sure aren't happy about it.  However, I can't think of one good reason why we should be giving any state employee pension money to an entity like the WEDC that has been so mismanaged and that hasn't demonstrated any measurable level of competence in handling financial matters.
What is frightening to public employees in Wisconsin is the obvious reality that our Governor not only wants us to pay more into our pension fund, but that he wants to be able to access the money that we contribute. 

Madison's Search for a Superintendent…
A strong school district needs strong leadership to help support educators and implement quality policies district wide.  For the past months the search has been on for candidates to take over the reins of the Madison Public Schools.  This past week saw a flurry of activity as the Madison Board of Education worked earnestly to narrow the field of candidates down.  

Unfortunately, controversy quickly followed their decision and significant questions were raised about one of the candidate's records.  The result was a candidate pool of 1.

Thursday night Dr. Jennifer Cheatham was in front of a good sized crowd (considering the weather conditions outside) and answered many pointed questions about her record, her philosophy and her plans for Madison's Public School System.  

The following day it was announced that MMSD's School Board had offered the job to Dr. Cheatham. 

Much has been made about the process and questions have been raised about the way that candidates were selected.  In additions there are some issues and concerns that supporters of public education have about Dr. Cheatham's record and associations with "reform" groups.  

My major concerns at this point about Dr. Cheatham's record and philosophy center around some of her comments made on Thursday.  I must admit that I have no direct information or experience with her, just what is available on the internet, what has been shared by fellow educators, information released by MMSD and Dr. Cheatham's answers at the Thursday night forum. 

Overall she made a favorable impression and seemed very knowledgeable and confident.  Many of her answers resonated with me and made me feel hopeful for the future in the MMSD.  However, a couple of things stood out to me.

-She used the term "agnostic" to express her thinking about private schools.  For me our superintendent needs to be the biggest advocate possible for public education.  This means that any reforms to public education, or use of public money should be only in the best interest of public education.  Private schools, private charter schools and any other educational venture on the privatization spectrum needs to be kept separate from public school funding and must be accountable for the same standards that public schools are held to.

-Much was made of the fact that she said she wouldn't increase the school day, but I heard her say that she didn't know enough about MMSD to say whether that would be a positive option.  Perhaps a subtle difference, but a difference none the less.  She also never answered the question about increasing educator pay if changes were made in hours worked. 

-It is still unclear to me just how positive and benevolent her relationship with educators in Chicago was.  I'm hopeful that she operates in the manner she described at the forum, but time will tell.
It is sad that we are in such a state of mistrust and suspicion.  It takes a lot to make public educators so pessimistic about anything.  Remember, we are people who spend every minute of our day thinking about ways to get our most challenged students to succeed and view every day as a new one.  I wonder what our opinions of Dr. Cheatham would be had the assaults on public education not been so intense over the past two years.

One topic that she addressed that I found to be very positive was the idea of empowering principals and educators to work together in their buildings to make positive change happen.  This sounds a lot like the joint venture that MTI and MMSD have been working on for the past couple of years to reduce the number of grievances filed and to promote positive relationships between administration and staff.  I hope that she follows through on her words and supports these ideas with action.  

In the end these questions had little impact on the final decisions made by the Board of Education.  We are left with our uncertainties, but also with a need to trust in the selection and in our elected representatives and work to make Dr. Cheatham's tenure as MMSD Superintendent a successful one.  No one person will be responsible for the future success of our district, we all are accountable for creating a district that serves every student well.