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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Green's Education "Plan"

What? What's everybody looking at me for? You think I think Mark Green's so-called education "plan" is worth a post?

Fine. I'll do it. I always do it.

Green's release is here, with a longer pdf at his website. Here's the gist:
  • Expanding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
  • The "70 percent solution"
  • Eliminating the Milwaukee Public Schools teacher residency requirement
  • Letting local school boards to implement cost saving measures through competitive bidding
  • Merit pay for teachers
  • Expansion of charter schools, including "virtual" charters
  • Updating our academic standards
  • Raising Wisconsin’s high school graduation requirements in math and science to three full credits
  • Allowing school districts to fire or refuse to employ dangerous convicted felons
The biggest thing I see in this proposal is, essentially, eliminating the ability of teachers to bargain collectively. But I'll get to that in a moment, pausing first for a bit of comedy gold.

Conservatives across the country right now have a new favorite one-trick pony: the "65% solution." Yes, that's right. The movement across the country calls for 65%, not Green's 70%. This is because Wisconsin's school districts currently average better than 66% of total spending on classroom education. While I guess we'd be the envy of movement conservatives everywhere already, Green wants to cinch that straight-jacket a little tighter.

I've linked to it before, and I'll do it again: I'm pretty sure the strategy session where Green came up with the 70% looked a lot like this.

However it happened, though, it's a gimmick, designed to sound good but full of the kind of twisted logic from ALEC and other conservative brain-trusts (and I use both of those words ironically) that brought you TABOR. For example:
[T]he scheme borrows its definition of "classroom" costs from the federal National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and applies it in a way never intended by NCES or anyone else. The results can be absurd. Spending on football programs, for example, would be allowed, but not on librarians, nurses, counselors, or the buses and bus drivers needed to get kids to school in the first place. [. . .] Prominent conservatives like Chester Finn of the Fordham Foundation and Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute have condemned the plan, as well. Writing in the conservative National Review, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jay P. Greene said it's "horribly wrongheaded."

Standard & Poor's, the company that evaluates the credit rating of public corporations, was asked to do a statistical review of school districts and they concluded that no spending level is “a ‘silver bullet’ solution.” Across the country, there are some highly successful school districts that spend less than 65% of their budgets in the classroom. There are unsuccessful districts that spend more. The PTA has described the proposal as a “one size fits all” bludgeon that ignores the needs of differing populations. Rural programs would see transit funds slashed while poorer districts could lose school nutrition programs that are a clearly documented aid to learning. [. . .] And the backers of the 65% Distraction have even be admirably honest with their true goals. As laid out in a leaked memo, Tim Mooney and Patrick Byrne, the leading advocates of the bill, make it clear that they see this move as a political one, to create division among teachers and administrators and begin laying the groundwork for vouchers, all while providing an opportunity to funnel soft money into ballot issue campaigns. Here’s a good rule of thumb: People who write memos about how to take political advantage of children should not be responsible for writing education policy.
There's more on that leaked memo here--and you know when even the pro-voucher Jay Greene is calling your BS, you've crossed a line. Though the details of Green's plan differ somewhat from critiques above--apparently he'll deign to count librarians--Mark Green should still be ashamed to be associated with anything this transparently phony and potentially damaging to a number of different districts around the state.

The expansion of voucher schools is not a surprise, either; it seems like Green is resurrecting the Thomas More High School Life-Saver Bill, wanting to 1) blow the newly-enlarged cap, 2) open all Milwaukee County private schools and private schools-to-be to voucher kids; and 3) up the income limit to some unspecified larger amount. When they sold us this plan more than 15 years ago, we were warned by some of the Milwaukee-area Democrats who were willing to give the experiment a try. Initial supporters like Annette Polly Williams have distanced themselves from current efforts to expand the program because it's lost its focus from the poor students who couldn't afford a private school on their own. Look at where the focus is now: Green clearly wants to expand the taxpayer-funded bailout of the area's religious schools.

As for the merits of the voucher program, well, type "voucher" into the "Search This Blog" box at the top of this page just in case you don't know what I think of it.

Mark Green relies on a flawed WPRI study to make the case for legislatively ending the requirement that MPS teachers live in Milwaukee. As I noted at the time, the study shows that only 5% of the teachers leaving MPS since 1992 cited the residency rule as a reason why, and applying the heavy thumb of the state to fix such an overstated problem bypasses the negotiations process and sets a bad precedent. Talk like this also undermines the work that has been done in the past couple of years dancing around a possible negotiated settlement on the issue between the union and the district.

Green, of course, has a history of not particularly caring whether or not the heavy thumb of the state mucks up the collective bargaining process: The QEO is a product of the years Green spent in the legislature. And then there's . . .

Bye Bye Bargaining
From the pdf explaining the plan, my emphasis:
A recent study conducted by WPRI found that “the Wisconsin Education Association Insurance Corporation (WEAIC) writes health insurance coverage on teachers in approximately 78 percent of the districts across the state. In most districts, the carrier has been chosen through a no-bid process.” [. . .] Mark Green will enact legislation that empowers local school boards to implement cost saving measures through a process of competitive bidding for health care. Specifically, Mark Green will enact legislation that prohibits bargaining over the selection of a health care coverage plan if the employer offers to enroll its employees in a plan provided to local government employers by the Group Insurance Board, or in a plan that is substantially similar to that offered by the Group Insurance Board.
That's right--rather than allowing for "bidding," the primary thrust of this proposal is actually to give districts the green light to completely bypass collective bargaining over the issue of health coverage. It's not enough, apparently, that Wisconsin teachers are the only employee class in the country whose compensation is legislatively capped (under the QEO), now Green wants to totally remove the ability to bargain over a fundamental part of that compensation.

This makes sense, I suppose, if you're the anti-union Mark Green, since the major flaw of the QEO from the administrative side--the point of view of districts and school boards--is that the imposition of the QEO in any bargaining cycle means that the details of any part of the compensation don't change; the total compensation is merely limited to a small increase. That means if a district inposes a QEO, it will be stuck with whatever health care package existed in the previous bargain. Green now wants to eliminate that last remnant of bargaining: Under his plan, a district could unilaterally impose a QEO and, at the same time, unilaterally change the health care part of the package.

You may as well just dissolve the union. Not that Green and his supporters would mind that--in fact, some would probably like that to be his top priority. But just because you don't like the union doesn't mean, again, that the WPRI study is factual. No surpise, I suppose, but WEAC disputes the study's results:
Fact: Competition is alive and well in the business of providing health insurance to public school districts. Under existing law, school districts can choose to join the state plan, can choose to self-insure, or can choose from among a variety of health plans being offered in the marketplace. In fact, many of the state’s largest school districts, such as Milwaukee and Madison, are self-insured. Only two districts, however, have chosen to join the state plan.
And, funny enough, the "study" names those two districts and how much they could save if they chose the state plan . . . Makes you want to cry, doesn't it?

This is the actual paragraph from Green's position paper:
Issue an Executive Order creating an Excellence in Education Task Force to develop a statewide performance-based pay system for Wisconsin’s teachers. This task force will be comprised of parents, teachers, school administrators, school board members, civic leaders, business leaders, educational policy experts, policy makers and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Its mandate will be to develop a statewide performance-based merit pay system that rewards teachers for academic excellence and increased student achievement rather than for the number of years on the job.
This is nothing more than a boilerplate "I'll have someone study that" dodge that still lets him have a nice soundbite for the conservatives in the audience. It's among the emptiest rhetoric I've seen lately. Either that, or Green really thinks that he can convene a panel to do what no one has been able to do before--develop an equitable and practical merit-pay system.

I often tell the story of my first year of teaching, out in the 'burbs, which, I am certain, would have been my highest-paid year if you went by merit pay. Not because I was better then--I recoil in horror at the memories of how bad I was--but because those students would have done well on any assessment measure whether they were taught by a master teacher or a monkey. The students I teach now, well, it's difficult just to get some of them to take the test in the first place.

The Rest of It
The rest of Green's plan--from allowing more charters through UW system schools to upping math and science requirements--are mostly re-hashes of old ideas. Governor Doyle, for example, made the math and science proposal two years ago, to a lukewarm reception and reminders that most Wisconsin students already far exceed the two-year requirement. As we learned a couple of weeks ago, the state Department of Public Instruction has already begun the process of getting a rewrite of the state's standards underway--and Mark Green, we learn, relies on the ridiculous Fordham study about state standards that inexplicably rated Wisconsin worse than all those states we far outperform.

All told, then, the Mark Green "plan" for education in Wisconsin is at best a collection of stale conservative ideas backed by clearly flawed studies or anti-union ideology. At worst, it's a cynical and empty pile of rhetorical sugar that the yeast that are his supporters can gorge on--and, predictably, they're already blowing gas: Owen uncritically calls it "awesome." Fraley says the package is "significant" and makes explicit the notion of making unions irrelevant. DiGaudio calls this all "ambitious."

Without any actual examination of what's in these proposals or an understanding of the underlying issues, Green's supporters have just jerked their knees with joy that Green wants to expand choice and weaken or eliminate the collective bargaining power of that evil union. They don't give any thought for whether these proposals would do thing one to improve teaching and learning or save taxpayers any real money.

And these proposals won't: What Greens's got is a collection of empty rhetoric and promises to help private schools, not public ones. You've got the end of collective bargaining with no promise of reward (except a commission to study merit pay) for teachers who lose their protections. You've got gimmicky one-size-fits-all solutions imposed on the hundreds of widely varying Wisconsin school districts. There is nothing about addressing, for example, the achievement gap or, as Doyle has done, providing students an incentive to take accelerated classes. How anyone can call that awesome or ambitious or significant is beyond me.

You want to talk ambitious? You should see what Nelson Eisman's up to. While I don't endorse everything he says, he at least recognizes that the first and best big step toward addressing school finance and tax issues is to cut the cost of health care for everyone in the state. I've been saying that for years. I've also been saying for years that the problem with the Milwaukee Public Schools is not a schools problem per se--it doesn't matter if the teacher of that gang-raped 11-year-old lives in Milwaukee or in Wauwatosa, or if she goes to an MPS school or somewhere on a voucher. There are problems endemic to this city that no amount of tinkering inside school walls will fix. Other districts--like the beleaguered Florence County--have completely different sets of issues. Green's cookie-cutter and red-meat approach shows just how ignorant he is of the complexities of restoring and maintaining quality public education in Wisconsin.

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