School Daze – Answers to funding questions are elusive

This is an e-mail sent to the Madison CARES listserve. Enjoy. By DENNIS A. SHOOK – Freeman Staf (April 16, 2005)
The hardest question on any test for a state legislator is what should be done to fund education?
Some legislators would answer “nothing” while others would answer “whatever it takes.’” But common sense tells us the right answer has to be somewhere between those two poles.
It is not a multiple choice question, with one or two right answers. It is more like an essay question that could cause even the most terse college student to fill several pages with an answer.
The latest round of referendum questions statewide showed the public is generally of the belief that education receives enough of the public’s tax money already. Yet school districts like Racine are considering ending extracurricular activities such as music and athletic programs. That could well cause an exodus from that city’s public schools to private schools or force families to relocate to other communities entirely. That surely can’t be what anybody wants, even the most ardent teacher bashers.
How did we arrive at such a state?

Almost everybody seems to believe it started more than a decade ago, when Gov. Tommy Thompson placed revenue caps on the districts, in tandem with a promise to fund schools by two-thirds with state money.
Like most state funding promises in the past several decades, it was not kept in the long run. So some districts receive more state funds than others. But few receive the full two-thirds.
The only way to get more money for growing or shrinking school districts is to go to referendum requests, which are about as popular as al-Qaida these days.
On top of that change, the state placed in the so-called QEO, or qualified economic offer of bargaining.
The QEO is the turf on which much of this dispute is being fought. Much of the blame for school problems is being laid at the feet of the teachers and their powerful union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council. Yet the QEO says that school districts can avoid contract dispute arbitration with WEAC by simply offering teachers a salaries and benefits increase package of 3.8 percent. As a result, few districts offer much more.
While that amount exceeds the wages/benefits package increase that many have received in other occupations, it is hardly a huge amount when compared to the double-digit compensation hikes teachers were routinely receiving from arbitrators during the 1980s.
The state Legislature’s answer to education problems has been to foster the idea of choice schools as a competitor to the public school system. But that alternative has picked up little overall support, as most people – particularly the governor – fear it will create a caste system of education. Families without the wherewithal to move into some parochial or private school setting could be left with second class, continually underfunded educational opportunities once other families abandon the public schools.
Legislators also seem fond of the idea that forcing teachers into the state’s insurance program would be a huge windfall. But the money that would be saved in such a conversion would simply go to teachers in wages instead, and not to districts or the state as some have suggested. After all, the educators are going to get that 3.8 percent minimum.
The notion suggested by some that teachers should somehow share those funds with the schools or state would be akin to having your boss go into your wallet after payday and taking some of the money back.
Not gonna happen.
But Gov. Jim Doyle’s answer was probably as unrealistic coming from the other side. In his budget speech he demanded a repeal of that QEO, which almost certainly would mean a return to the days of huge teacher pay increases. While that would make teachers happy, it would be pouring gas on a fire. Taxpayers are already burned out by what they see as taxes that are too high.
And I can hardly believe that the governor was as surprised as he sounded this week when the state Joint Finance Committee simply removed the QEO repeal from their version of the proposed biennial budget. They could scarcely do anything else without sparking an unprecedented taxpayer revolt.
Because math was always my weakest subject, I have to admit these numbers can confuse and daze me. Yet even I can figure out that when everything is said and done, something has to give. These are questions that require answers so Wisconsin does not flunk out in the competition to properly educate our children, provide them jobs in the state and live up to our heritage as a state that cares deeply about the pursuit of knowledge for all.
Way back in the corners of our collective political consciousness I am beginning to sense that there is an answer beginning to form. It probably involves consolidating many school districts and putting in place some kind of insurance program that keeps employee costs under control on the expenditure side.
On the revenue side, it also seems we are all starting to become more aware that not every sector in our economy is pulling its weight. Most every comparative study of tax burden during the past few decades has seen a dramatic shift of the burden onto the individual property taxpayer and away from the business sector. There are also a lot of taxable entities that are not being taxed at all, like nonprofits and even fraternal and religious organizations.
Before every CEO, pastor and grand pooh-bah out there comes to the newspaper demanding my scalp, I am merely suggesting that some kind of contribution may need to be forthcoming from them in order to help answer this problem.
After all, one of the golden rules I was taught before those teachers were salary capped was that we are all in this together, even when we choose to try to stay apart.
(Dennis A. Shook is the Freeman’s government and politics reporter. Contact him 513-2670, or at