Comments on the 2006 Madison Edge School Referendum & Possible Closure of a “Downtown School”

Dan Sebald:

I’m somewhat incredulous about the comments from the Madison School Board President Johnny Winston Jr. in Susan Troller’s article about Monday’s meeting. Do I understand correctly? The School Board packaged the new west side elementary school with two other spending items to ensure its passage as a referendum on last November’s ballot, and now the School Board is reluctant to put forth a referendum to fully fund downtown schools? And they give no reassurance about seeking to keep the downtown school curriculums and class size intact?
And what of these comments about no public outcry? If the public is to do the political footwork to get rid of draconian state-imposed caps, we wouldn’t need a School Board.
From someone who has no vested interest in one’s own children’s education yet recognizes the importance of a solid education for everyone, I say Madison’s school system is in obvious decline.
My opinion is that if the modus operandi is school funding by referendums and we get a referendum for a new school on the edge of the city, then we get a referendum to fund downtown schools.
If that referendum fails, then it fails, which would be a good indication of where priorities in the community lie and also a sad disappointment.
Dan Sebald Madison

This is a fascinating issue, particularly given the folks that lined up to support last fall’s referendum.

26 thoughts on “Comments on the 2006 Madison Edge School Referendum & Possible Closure of a “Downtown School””

  1. By “downtown”, does the author means Lapham/Marquette, Emerson and (possibly) Lowell? Or does he mean an operating referendum in general? Further, I don’t see this being “fascinating given the folks that lined up to support last fall’s referendum”, unless, as a fall referendum supporter, you are now feeling guilty there, Jim? Too funny! I see operating and building referendums as separate issues- certainly both are needed, but not joined at the hip. I guess we could pit schools at the edge of town against older schools in the city, but what’s to gain in the end besides more acrimony in an already acrimonious situation? Maybe you can explain your fascination in more detail than a one-liner?

  2. Hi David:
    This is a situation many communities have faced, growth on the edge and a hollowing out of the downtown / inner city..
    I supported the new far west school so that our system could “hopefully” move on to address the big issues of the day including, among others: school climate, curriculum, budget and its interactions (two way) with the community.
    The recent public discussions of the district’s $5.9M structural deficit adds to the financial challenges.
    There was a good amount of support around town for the new school. The fascinating part, for me, is how this will play out (new edge school going up) while numbers and buildings are debated as part of the upcoming budget discussions.
    It will also be interesting to see how this plays out with the City of Madison’s ongoing downtown development (and tax base) appetite (please, no more metal buildings).
    Finally, perhaps this is the time to re-think schools as Toffler so usefully suggests:
    We’re no longer all on the farm, for better or worse.

  3. Well it’s certainly interesting that the properties that supported the MMSD, via it’s tax base, for the longest period are now in jeopardy of not getting MMSD services conveniently. You’re right, that’s nothing new in America, and an unpleasant result of sprawl. I suppose the MMSD could simply refuse to sprawl along with the developers, and bus kids to existing schools. Instead, they’ve engulfed Fitchburg, Cross Plains/Middleton, etc.
    Toffler has some radical ideas, a la Bill Gates, but I just don’t see them happening, especially here. If the MMSD ever gets to the point of being completely broken, then I can see someone wanting to resort to these types of ideas, but many of them are impractical (the 24 hr school, for example) in American society. Then again, I think the MMSD (as one of the top public school systems in the country) does a damn fine job for the majority of it’s students, given the current weight of non-english speakers, record poverty among the kids’ families, etc. Certainly not perfect, but nothing like a lot of school districts. The current fiscal problems might very well drop us into mediocrity sooner than we think and only then will citizens be willing to seriously consider radical changes to the system. Will the system consider radical changes? That’s the multi-million dollar (pun intended) question!

  4. Hi David:
    Useful points. However, I think the hockey analogy works:
    “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is.”
    Paul Soglin mentioned recently that ” This year, the kindergarten class is over 50% indigent. ”
    Madison is also home to the UW, MATC, Edgewood College, state government and a growing tech community. Addressing the wants and needs of these communities with respect to K-12 is a monumental challenge. Happily, Madison has long strongly supported its schools via high taxes and extensive volunteerism.
    Continuing with the “same service” approach year after year is not the answer, particularly in an era where local per student spending is growing at about 5.7% annually despite state revenue (tax growth) and compensation limits. (What are the odds of more money magically appearing for a “rich” district like Madison?)
    It seems that we should devote staff intensive resources to the students that need it (working with every possible organization to make this happen) and, simultaneously embrace virtual and cooperative (UW, MATC and ?) learning tools where practical, particularly in areas where staffing or availability is a challenge (Mandarin and other languages, Math and ?)
    North Carolina has an interesting program where high school students can obtain an associates degree along with their diploma by 18)
    I believe that Peter Gascoyne’s budget suggestion is the place to start:

  5. Can anyone provide any data to back up the frequent claim that Madison is “one of the top public school systems in the country.”
    Nearly every other school district in Dane County beats Madison in third grade reading scores, for instance, so I think the claim is just one that gets repeated and repeated and repeated until people begin to accept it as true.

  6. Ed: I was referring to the many surveys that have come out over the years via US News & World Report, Business Climate magazines and the like. I’m sure they don’t look at 3rd grade reading scores as much as they look at what graduates actually achieve, etc. They tend to be good ratings though, and Appleton, Sheboygan and Lacrosse usually eclipse Madison in the rankings. Perhaps most meaningful, to me, is that Madisonians report, on surveys, that they are very happy with their schools (as do these other communities that get ranked high). Quite different from hard data, for sure, but neither data nor these surveys can tell you the whole picture of a school district. Why do the other Dane Co. districts beat MMSD’s 3rd grade reading scores? IMHO, it’s a combination of poverty and influx of new students who don’t get MMSD intervention in reading during the crucial K-3 years.

  7. Thank you all for the thoughtful discussion on this topic.
    For an “education layperson” like myself, these “first-principals” discussions are actually more accessible. I’ve determined it could take me years to figure out the decision making processes of our local schools. I am able to weigh my own experience and improve my understanding when discussions go a little more global.
    Knowing that time is precious, when the knowledgeable folks here can venture into the theoretical topics, I wanted to say thanks, and encourage more.

  8. When it comes to rating school districts, Ed, I think beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly the quality of any district is not based on one high school, or one set of data, or what one magazine says vs. that of another magazine.

  9. So scores for MMSD student don’t look good due to “a combination of poverty and influx of new students who don’t get MMSD intervention in reading during the crucial K-3 years.”
    What then are we to conclude about quality? That the MMSD is the best in the country if you aren’t poor and you’ve gone to school here since kindergarten.

  10. I’d say your conclusion is reasonably accurate, Ed. Those who get in at the ground level certainly have the best shot at success. No school district can guarantee that just by showing up, you get a great education.

  11. David, can you give me any references to “the many surveys that have come out over the years” that rate the MMSD as one of the best districts in the nation?
    I think the claim is a bunch of hooey used to deflect any serious discussion of how the MMSD could be better.

  12. You’d have to ask Ken Syke. I’m sure he keeps a PR file on these types of things. I’ve just read the rankings over the course of the past decade or so. The most recent was published in Fall 2006 but I’ll be damned if I recall the periodical- it was in the newspapers, etc. And all those “best city in America” accolades Madison got in the late 90s/early 2000s featured the MMSD as a major factor.
    Ed, no rankings, even a #1, should deflect serious discussion about how the MMSD could be better. But let’s face it, MMSD doesn’t exactly suck either.

  13. David, tell an economically disadvantaged student of color that this district doesn’t suck.

  14. I can’t think of any school district (or any city/town/etc.) that doesn’t suck for an economically disadvantaged student of color!

  15. I’m going to amend my above statement Ed. Every district sucks for some, but not all, economically disadvantaged students (regardless of colour). MMSD certainly doesn’t suck for the majority of Mendota and Black Hawk students that fit the economically disadvantaged criteria. But having this debate is a bit like chasing the dragon’s tail: you never quite get there whilst going around in circles. I know you’d like to see 100% success, others have argued that 100% success is impossible, so we should be happy with ____% success. I don’t have the answer, other than to keep trying with each child.

  16. David,
    At Mendota, 32% of the black 4th graders don’t read at grade level; 42% score at the minimal level in math. Granted these percentages are based on a small number of students.
    At Blackhawk, 33% of the black 8th graders read below grade level; 54% score in the minimum or basic levels in math. District-wide 56% of the black 8th graders score in the minimum or basic levels in math, so Black Hawk isn’t doing anything special in math.
    Saying that Madison is the best district in the country simply sweeps these sad scores under the rug so that people can sit back and feel self-satisfied.
    I define success as 90 to 95% or better at or above grade level regardless of ethnic, racial, or economic background.

  17. Go here for detailed descriptions of DPI/WKCE proficiency standards.
    You can get detailed information on what is basic, proficient, advanced and below grade level. Many educators familiar with the WKCE standards will tell you that the proficiency standard — the one above basic, but below advanced — is not all that challenging.

  18. Here’s an idea: Have every parent develop an education plan for their child. Have the parent state what their goals are and how they intend to contribute. Fund our educators to facilitate this goal-setting process, track progress (we are in a digital age after all), and be accountable to their contract with parents. Fund the system to address the variety of needs that parents have.
    Public education is tax funded and implies a social contract on multiple levels. I believe the primary contract is between the parent and the school (not between student and school). If this contract is not clear to both parties and is not adhered to in good faith, then public resources and our children’s time, both very precious, are squandered.
    Recent postings on this forum have highlighted that it is factors in the home that have the most direct impact on a child’s success in school.
    I don’t want to unfairly characterize Ed’s comments, but I can’t shake this visualation they provoke in me of education as an Orwellian machine that molds all children into “at or above grade level” widgets ready to be stamped by inpector 7.
    Is the goal of our tax money to certify every child as “U.S.D.A prime”, or to provide equal opportunity, promote realistic objectives, and honor a good-faith contract to each family with children?

  19. Man, if only a third of our 8th grade african american students read below grade level, I think we’re doing pretty well. And we’re slightly above-average district-wide in math? Do you have any idea how POOR these kids’ families are? We have a ton of kids who never went to an MMSD school until they moved here from Milwaukee and Chicago. My hunch is they make up a large percentage of poor performers. But really, how are you going to fix it? Cut all varsity athletics and pump that cash into in-home tutoring?

  20. Matt, I was going along with the contract idea, and then you hit the part about at or above grade level.
    I don’t get what you’re trying to say.
    Are you saying that we shouldn’t care whether students can read or preform necessary math problems? Are you saying that we shouldn’t have specific goals? How about diplomas? Is it Orwellian to march seniors across a stage and hand them a diploma?
    Would you be satisfied if you had a third grader who read at a first grade level? Or would you want that child to read at or above a third grade level?
    Maybe you don’t understand what at or above grade level means. Whatever, I’m mystified.

  21. Ed,
    What I’m saying is that I view education as a system of mutual support. Support by families for families. You cannot measure the success of the system by statistics that are disconnected from the background and expecations of each family.
    The family is central, and regardless of what statistics you want to quote, it is really hard for me to believe there is any family in MMSD who has a “I want my child to learn so bad I can taste it” attitude who also feels that MMSD “sucks” as you say.
    Of course there are problems. We as an ever-changing community need to reach out — family to family — to help each other. But I can’t imagine how demoralizing our struggling educators must feel when the whole enterprise is labeled so harshly.

  22. I think you could easily find many “struggling educators” who criticize the MMSD and its administrators with profanities and remarks far harsher than I ever use in public.
    I’m sorry to contradict the conventional wisdom, but the family isn’t the central influence for a needy child’s education.
    Tonight I’ll give you a reference to a book that argues that middle and upper class students primarily rely on their families for education while schools enhance what the children learn at home. By contrast, low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students rely on schools for their education.
    If your premise were correct, then why should the schools even try to educate children without supportive families? The effort would be doomed to fail.
    And don’t tell me that the problem is getting families involved in their children’s educations. Do you realize that some children in the MMSD have no functional adult at the place were they sleep at night? (I hesitate to call that place a home.) Adults might be around but not functional due to mental illness, alcohol addiction, and drug abuse, to name a few problems. How are you going to get a dysfuntional “family” involved in their student’s education?
    Additionally, the MMSD graduates illiterate students who become parents who can’t help their children because they can’t read.
    School’s must be held accountable for educating the neediest of the needy, not just those from “good” homes.

  23. Ed — first off I respect and appreciate your responses. You have a mature, self-consistent theory of education and you are eloquent in expressing it.
    At this point, to a degreee, I fail on both those counts. I haven’t yet come to my own understanding of how this whole complicated thing should work and I’m a little rough in expressing my thoughts. Given how fast the world is changing, this sentiment probably describes a lot of us.
    What prompted me to write was simply my conviction that it is unfair to label our district a failure because it is not getting a uniform result no matter who arrives at the door. I believe in restructuring our institutions to serve a broader range of family needs. For our younger children especially, I would like a greater focus on forming tight bonds and contracts between the school and family — whatever form the family takes. The school is really just a community of families, so bringing a new family into the fold, assessing new needs and agreeing on expectations is a process that ideally begins long before kindergarten.
    One experience I can speak to directly is globalization. For over 10 years now I’ve worked closely with engineers from India and Pakistan. More recently I’ve started supervising these teams offshore. (If you guessed from my surname that I myself grew up in Chicago you’d be right.) The world is enormous in diversity of culture and belief, but one absolute common denominator is reverence for education and commitment to working hard at learning. If our diversity of culture and status at home were not enough to prod me to assess what a fair educational system is, trust me that working in a global economy really makes you confront the question.
    You are generous to dialog with me and I look forward to more discussions.

  24. Ed,
    The US News ranking only shows how many students paid to take the tests. It does not show how well they did. It does not show how many students took the class and did not take the test. It does not show how many AP classes are offered.
    Why would a student take the class and not the test? There are several good reasons. Their college might not accept a grade below a 5. There may be no placement advantage in the field they are going to study in college (ex: English). They may only want to take a great class in high school and not worry about college placement.
    My children did not always take an AP test after completing a class. They only took the test if it allowed for advanced placement in college (ex: math, foreign language) Many colleges today do not allow AP courses to exempt students from required courses. The tests cost almost $100 each today. If there is no advantage to taking the test, why send $100 to a private company to test you on that subject?
    Some schools require students to take the tests if they take the class. Some schools actually pay for the tests. This is why some schools appear high on the list one year and are off the next. If the district no longer pays for the tests, the number will drop quickly.
    The only thing that this poll shows me is that the College Board (testing service) has a great marketing department.

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