Board Votes to Create Equity Task Force

Schools to take closer look at equity
Task force could lead to budget war

By Matt Pommer, The Capital Times
November 1, 2005
The Madison School Board created an “equity” task force Monday, setting the stage for a possible budget war over programs like elementary school strings and foreign language instruction in middle schools.
President Carol Carstensen said the board had been “skirting difficult issues” in budget preparations.
The board has been in favor of equality and directing resources to the neediest population, but “we have not used our power to allocate resources to our neediest children,” she said.
The citizens task force was given a March 31 target date for a report, time enough to influence the development of the School Board’s 2006-07 budget. Twelve people – three from each high school attendance area – will be named to the task force.
In light of state budget controls, it becomes more difficult to fund program like strings and foreign language in middle school, Carstensen said.
Board member Juan Lopez said the School Board has been “responsive” to organized groups rather than focused on equity. For example, the strings program is important, but he asked, “Is it equitable? No.”
Groups may come to the board with a plea for an additional charter school, Lopez noted. That may not be equitable, but the board responds to a political push, he suggested.
Abha Thakkar, a member of the Northside Planning Council and the East Attendance Area PTO Coalition, urged the board to appoint the task force. She said in a “time of prosperity” it is easy to continue programs that help just some of the students in the district.
Helping the pupils from poor families is not just an east side or north side issue, she indicated. “It’s a districtwide issue,” she said, in urging adoption of the task force.
After the meeting, she told The Capital Times she was pleased by the creation of the task force. But she was most pleased at the lengthy board discussion before the vote.
“They finally fessed up to the issue,” she said.
Board member Lawrie Kobza said the equity issue was the reason she ran for the board. “Maybe it’s difficult to define equity,” she said.

22 thoughts on “Board Votes to Create Equity Task Force”

  1. Does “equity” in this discussion mean issues of racial equity in the district or equity in funding for various schools and programs? Sounds like the latter.

  2. I believe that equity here refers to board policy 9001, which dates to 1994 and says: “This policy provides guidance for the Board to provide an equitable educational opportunity for each student to obtain the 100% success objectives of Madison Schools 2000 in the most effective and economical manner.”
    [go to:
    What does this mean? Good question. In the past, it’s been construed to mean that schools with higher numbers of special needs, low income, and/or
    students of color, would receive additional resources to help ensure student achievement.
    If I’m not mistaken, the high schools were cut out of the Equity Resource Formula some time ago but the policy was not amended to reflect that action.

  3. I find it rather disgusting and racist that Juan Lopez immediately suggests dumbing down the curriculum for all students as a means of creating “equity.” Clearly, the board better update and clarify what they mean by “equity.” If you ask me, equity should provide for the provision of “excellence” across all income and racial groupings. I don’t think you would find too many people agreeing with Lopez that equity means cutting those programs that provide “excellence.”

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with Donald’s comments. Implicit in that suggestion to dumb down the material is the belief that certain groups of students don’t have the ability to succeed with regular curriculum. Research shows that if you only have low expectations for students that is all they will achieve. I think we should expect and encourage excellence from our students.

  5. Donald: I was at the meeting Monday night and nowhere did Juan Lopez suggest that the board “dumb down curriculum for all students as a means of creating equity.” Sorry, didn’t happen, it was never said or implied, you are making assumptions and putting words in people’s mouth. I won’t even make the assumption that because Juan referred to strings, you are responding in kind. Rather, I’d suggest that you investigate what we are discussing when we talk about equity. Then you are free to form your opinion…but please don’t make assumptions based on a quote from Juan. It will be easy to dismiss talk about equity by making it a political football. Thanks!

  6. David: You are right. The article didn’t say Lopez favored “dumbing down” the curriculum. That’s my interpretation, a reading between the lines of what Carstenson and Lopez are actually aiming at. They spelled it out quite clearly, I think, so there wasn’t much line reading to do. They are trying to find a politically correct way to sell their years long assault on certain programs that provide excellence, rather than remediation. Now I don’t think that’s what Kobza has in mind by equity.

  7. While the idea of making it equitable is admirable I think everyone’s concern is the elimination of uniqueness of schools. Why does the middle school have to be carbon copies of each other. Take the best of each and move forward yes, but the elimination of options at certain schools because it is not offered at other schools is dumbing down, AND that is the concern of all parents. We do not make a better school district by making sure they are all the same……………is that how the free market works? I think we are all concerned based on Sherman’s direction that if they can’t offer it then the other schools should not offer it either.

  8. Thanks Don….I think that Carol understands where Lawrie Kobza and the East Attendance Area PTO Coalition are coming from in terms of the equity policy. I can’t comment on Juan’s motivations. As the long time co-president of the aforementioned coalition, I can tell you that we’ve spent 4 years discussing equity with a wide variety of MMSD, Board and community members. Some people may try to co-opt the equity issue for their own means; I hope that doesn’t happen. In many cases, the idea of equity actually involves the “sprucing up” of curricula, as opposed to “dumbing it down”. As a parent of a TAG kid who has had all his programming removed, a special ed kid who has benefitted from a lot of direct instruction, and a typical kid who attends a “not so diverse” school, I can only hope that folks don’t take sides or make assumptions about equity based upon what they hear from Board members or read on the web from the ideologues in our great city. When I get a chance, I’ll post a plethora of equity ideas here, including some myths and some realities and how they relate to the current demographics in the city and the MMSD.

  9. As I recall, the equity issue came up early last year and was sidelined (along with minority student achievement and air quality at Lowell) so that the board could consider the merits of live animals in the classroom. At least that’s what I believe a time-content analysis of the meeting that I remember would show
    NOTE: this is in no way a statement on the significance of the live animals issue. Rather, it is a statement that I think the majority of the board found it easier to talk about fluffy animals vs. allergies than the other issues. But I may not be remembering correctly – it’s been over a year since that meeting.
    To be honest, I was a bit surprised at how squishy policy 9001 is when I went back to read it. My understanding based on interactions with the board and advocacy over preceding years, is that the idea of equity posits that it would be appropriate – desirable even – to allocate additional resources to schools with higher numbers of children who may be challenged to find educational success. Sort of a way of leveling the playing field by acknowledging that children who have no access to books in the home are likely to be disadvantaged in classrooms with children who have had books, people reading to them, computers, etc., from their earliest hours. I may have imagined the intent, but had believed that it was about creating the resources to raise the academic achievement of students at the lower end of the spectrum so that the school as a whole can advance.
    I don’t believe that this has happened for a long time. Certainly the equity formula has not been in place beyond the middle school level in recent years. Sort of an interesting assumption, there, about what matters and the high school level and why.
    I also agree with Don and Jeff re. the implications of dumbing down the curriculum. If one looks at the academic proposals at the middle and high school levels of recent years, the class placement practices within schools, and the types of resources that our teachers are working with, it begins to feel like the board/district is taking the easiest course of action by expecting little and proclaiming victory without providing the ‘data driven’ discrete analyses that would support claims of student achievement regardless of race, class, or special needs.
    I’m a mom with a son who has struggled with dyslexia his entire life. Sadly, he has gotten much more of the instruction on writing and academic skills since he started going to MATC than he did as a student in the MMSD. I don’t think that he is unique; sadly, there are many more like him who have lost the self confidence to keep going long enough to get the degree and then go on to a post-high school education.
    One final note. As I have mentioned many times, parents of African American students had one goal in common when we were meeting regularly with the principal at East: raise the bar for our children. This is not unique to East or to the African American community. As a school community or a city, we ignore that goal at great risk to educational quality in all of our schools.

  10. Mary: My analysis actually does the inverse of your proposition. Sherman (only as an example since you raised it) is a middle school with above-average needs compared to other middle schools. A school like Sherman cannot, currently, offer some academic programs that, say, Hamilton or Jefferson can offer because they are forced (due to their student demographics) to use their allocations on (just a hypothetical) 2 social workers and 2 counselors. So, to be equitable, Sherman may need 2 extra allocations so that their students can have the same academic programs that the other middle schools can offer (because other middle schools might need only 1 social worker and 1 counselor). So, in my view, Sherman currently is limited because of it’s own challenges and Ann Yehle’s need to work with what she is given, rather than what Sherman deserves given a theory of equitable distribution of resource allocations. I hope this arguement makes sense to everyone, and certainly feel free to criticize my line of thinking:)

  11. David,
    Thanks for your input on my concerns. I realize that Sherman has higher social needs than say Jefferson and Hamilton. I am not opposed to allocating greater resources to those schools, however, the financial climate we live in leads me to believe the easiest choice for the board and administration would be to lower the standard. Cherokee has an income level similar to Sherman and the diversity of students taking courses is similar to Jefferson and Hamilton.
    I am confused why we can’t help Sherman reach that level without decreasing the level at schools that are working. The English discussion at West is a perfect example of the district seeking to give the students struggling an opportunity while eliminating options for students that excel. I hope the district is seeking to Help and Improve the equity and not reduce the opportunities at the schools that are functioning at a high level.

  12. Mary, you raise some very important questions. I believe that there are two problems:
    1) we have an equity policy and formula that is not fully implemented if it is implemented at all (at a minimum, the required annual reports don’t appear to be produced, presented, and discussed by the board), and,
    2) the budget process focuses on the wrong questions. It starts with a premise that the only options are to do more or less of what was done the previous year and the year before that. The questions of how our schools are doing, what the elements of a successful school would be, and how to get there for individual schools, simply aren’t part of the calculus.
    The process through which allocations and cuts are decided relies on a premise of pitting educational advocates against each other while accepting at face value that there are no economies to be found in the administrative portions of the budget. Rather than putting students and people in the schools first, it puts them last. Tonight’s news stories on the cuts to trained nurses in the schools is just one more example of how this works. Which seems sort of backward from where I sit.

  13. It is factually correct that the Equity Policy does exist; however, the Board tried to completely get rid of it, which is why were are at this juncture. To my knowledge, it has never been used in the Rainwater administration. It was created by Cheryl Wilhoite, and the language is reminiscent of the early 90s. Instead, Rainwater and staff created the Equity Resource Formula, based on the Equity Needs Index, which weights certain aspects of poverty, special ed needs, etc. for each school and then assigns an allocation. The current Equity Policy definitely needs to be tweaked and updated, but not necessarily replaced. That’s up to the task force to recommend. Since this will all occur during the election cycle, I can see how it is becoming a political football. Should the Board have dealt with this in years past? Absolutely. How unfortunate for the less fortunate who truly deserve equity. When the budget gets cut equally across the board next spring, poorer school communities will once again suffer more than their more affluent counterparts.

  14. David, I think you are right about the origins – I had forgotten that piece of it.
    You’ve said that the equity formula “is becoming a political football” more than once. Could you elaborate on that? E.g., I’m not sure if you’re arguing that the equity formula should not be addressed until the task force process has run its course, that it should be addressed but is not being addressed in the right way, or other statement. I want to make sure that I’m understanding your point.

  15. Lucy: I say it’s a political football because Juan raised it in terms of the strings program not being an equitable program, and Barb now raises it as an issue of board competence as we go into the election cycle. Everyone knows Barb and Juan’s history of clashing on issues, and since you and Barb are involved in sewing the seeds of your campaign against Juan, it’s only logical to extend this to the idea that the Equity Policy will be politicized. Heck, we politicized the idea, not the policy, last year when Lawrie whipped Clingan. However, I think things have changed in terms of the *discussion* at the Board level. Carol(along with Lawrie and Ruth) has stepped up to the plate and made this a serious discussion. So, having taken 4 years to get any serious discussion, and a task force created for community members to have input and advise the Board, I’d hate to see the policy itself dragged through the electoral mud when the proverbial political mud is going to be difficult enough to surmount. Why? Because in the end, it’s the poor kids who will suffer, and it might very well be the strings kids and the TAG kids who suffer as well. So yes, I’m saying let the task force be staffed, let them do their work. Otherwise, the issue gets co-opted into the political arena and the community will either take sides or become disengaged based on the political debate instead of the merits of “equity in education for all students”. Please understand that I’m not slamming any candidates and their rights to question each other’s stand on various issues.

  16. David, I think you protest too much while slamming away. Many of us have commented on the equity issue – no one person or group has a lock on it. If you sat through some of the LRP meetings last year, you would know that I asked pointed questions about school populations, whether resources follow students with special needs when boundaries change, etc. If you have seen me testify at board meetings over the past 17 years, you would find that I have raised issues related to equity directly or indirectly on more than one occasion. If you were a teacher or administrator in Madison’s schools or anyone that I’ve harangued about the way that our system disadvantages and disenfranchises students whose families don’t have the economic, educational, or other means to access support services outside of the schools, you would know that this is hardly a new interest on my part. There are news clips going back around ten years where I am advocating on this issue.
    I find it more than a bit offensive that you characterize this as a ploy in my decision to run against Juan and would appreciate a retraction on your part.

  17. Lucy…I didn’t intend my comments to be interpreted that way whatsoever. Heck, I support your candidacy. I’m simply saying that if people care about the equity issue, which I absolutely know that you do, then they will find ways to discuss it without politicizing it. Dave

  18. David & Lucy,
    As you might suspect, I hate to say that the MMSD superintendent occassionally gets something right. However, his first monthly column began, “Public Education is inherently political.” So, the debate on the equity formula will inevitably be political, in the sense of being a public debate to how to allocate public funds for public benefit, and in the electoral sense.

  19. You’re right – the discussion of public funding and equity is highly political, Ed. However, I make a distinction between political process and playing politics. When my interest, or the interest of others, is attributed to electoral politics, that is playing politics. And a bit of a cheap shot at that, regardless whether it was well intended.
    The same might be said of of the comments on Barb’s motives. Yes, she is serving as my campaign treasurer. However, she also has a long record of trying to establish a more thorough and transparent approach to the budget in a number of areas. This is apparent in numerous board and board committee meetings. And she has done so in the face of some of the most discourteous behavior that I have witnessed on the part of a public body. Some members of the board have used her advocacy for strings as a way to dismiss her larger message of accountability and educational quality. When people buy into that, it is all of our loss.
    My point on equity is simple: if we accept the premise that there are no options other than to pit equity and diversity against other factors that support academic achievement, we all lose. And in the process, we allow the board and the administration to continue to avoid the big questions about how the current budget – ALL of the current budget – supports educational excellence, particularly as it affects daily practice in our schools. When we cut teachers and in-school services first, there is an implcit assumption that what happens in the schools is the least important aspect of our educational system. I reject that assumption, and believe that a large portion of Madison does too. Call it political or not, this is a community conversation that is long overdue.

  20. Lucy, would you agree with me, then, that in the context of the entire budget picture, equity and how it will be funded (if a good plan is hatched through the task force) should include more than just what is allocated for buildings currently? For example, administrative (Doyle bldg) costs might be reduced to truly fund equity? Heck, any monies that the MMSD has might be diverted to fund equitable education? And, of course, the hardest questions will be how do avoid pitting strings against poor schools against athletics against TAG? I think I understand where you are going with this, and if there is a way to minimize the political battles between parents and programs, I’m very much in favor of that.
    However, if monies outside the current pot allocated for building staff cannot be freed up, then we do end up pitting each group against each other. That’s what I read into Juan’s statement Monday night when he said that the strings program was inequitable, because it serves minority kids inequitably. He went on to state (accurately I believe) that Barb’s politics with strings parents (bringing large numbers to meeting to be loudly heard)makes it difficult for the Board to look at things objectively due to political pressure. Other groups simply cannot muster those numbers of parents. His final point (and this might have been Carol’s point as well) being that if the Board has an Equity Policy to guide them through the budgetary process, then every program can be measured in terms of how equitable it is for students, and make the decisions on what to cut and where easier.
    My point on electoral politics fits in because I know he was insinuating that Barb’s strings tactics were minimizing cuts to an inequitable program. I certainly don’t think that you object to equity in any form. The fact that this district waited so long to have this equity discussion is definitely contributing to the terseness of the debate, and I don’t expect this to go away anytime soon. I’m more shocked at how long it has taken to get to this point!

  21. The way to avoid political battles is to start budgeting honestly. Every year the administration proposes some cut to the strings program, and protects positions at the Doyle Building. Why? Long-term budget analyses done in other districts have demonstrated that music programs actually save money over 5-10 years. You have to wonder why this district refuses year after year to engage in long-term budget analysis. I suspect an analysis of budgets over the long-term would show that cuts to strings will result in less money for equity.

  22. When schools have identical populations we can talk about identical allocations. As long as some schools have significantly higher high-need populations than do other schools, we need to allocate resources in proportion to need. Otherwise the formula reinforces and compounds the inequity. I would be much happier with budgeting based on documented needs and outcomes rather than formulas.
    We saw a corollary of this when we looked at budgets for school sports programs. All four high schools receive transportation funding for home football games. Two of the schools have stadiums right next to the school; two do not. All receive the same amount of dollars, so the schools that do not have transportation for home games get a budgetary bonus each year.
    Beyond that, my position on equity is stated in my earlier post – I believe that the principle of equity is essential to the future success of our schools, and believe that ALL district funds must come under scrutiny if we are to arrive at a workable solution. I do not accept the premise that the only funds available are the ones in the shrinking pots for school operations and educational programs.

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