Thursday, March 31, 2011

WKCE results released; state budget hearings scheduled

I have been reviewing test data over the past days, because our WKCE results were released.   Our news release is here.  The short story is that our reading proficiency rates are up.  Math scores have slightly decreased (one percentage point).  We have more work to do to ensure all children achieve to high standards, and we will keep at it.
A lot of attention has been paid to the WKCE scores for the children in the voucher schools (the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program schools).  This is the first year that state standardized tests were given to voucher school students.  DPI reported the results here.   I think a couple of points have been made very clear with the WKCE scores. 
Firstly, voucher students need to continue taking the tests. Governor Walker’s proposed state budget wipes away the yearly assessment requirement for voucher schools.  We believe Milwaukee parents and students benefit from knowing how their schools perform, and that all schools should be accountable. 
Secondly, the WKCE results show students in voucher schools clearly lag behind those in MPS, even though these schools have fewer students with challenges.  Almost 20% (roughly 17,000) of MPS students have special education needs, but only approximately 1.5%, (a total of 444) voucher students do.  That means that all together, the 102 voucher schools are serving a special education population that is equal to what MPS serves in just one of its district schools:  Hamilton High School.  This disparity could have had an impact on our WKCE results, but our students continue to make progress, thanks to their hard work and the district’s consistent instruction.
The governor proposes to lift caps on voucher enrollment and income limits, and to eliminate testing for voucher schools while at the same time, proposes to de-fund the public education system that serves all children, regardless of their abilities -- a public education system that, based on test results, is serving children better. 

There is opportunity in the data.  This is the chance for all those involved in the decision-making to focus the discussion on what works best for kids.   The data released this week makes it very clear.

Speaking of that discussion, the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee will hold four public hearings on the governor’s two-year budget plan.  It appears there are no evening or weekend hearings, and that there are no sessions in Milwaukee, though there is a session scheduled at the State Fair Park Expo Center in West Allis on April 11.  Here’s the full list of meeting dates and locations.   I encourage you to attend a budget hearing, and get involved.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A bit of forward progress

(This post is available in Spanish. Leer artículo en español.)

Another week, another bit of forward progress.

We continued the process of trimming costs, gaining efficiencies and enhancing service to students with this week’s proposals to a School Board committee Tuesday night.  It was a long night and many parents came to provide input.  We were glad to see them. While the full Board must still approve the measures March 31, it looks as though we received the okay to close one school, relocate four others and merge two more.  We will continue to explore cost savings in school nutrition, and we received initial approval to go ahead with a food service improvement plan in the high schools.   More school changes will come forward in April, along with the district’s own proposed spending plan for FY12.

Of course, the actions we are taking now only begin to position us to be a more financially stable district.  We still face an immense budget shortfall, mostly due to projected state cuts of more than $74 million dollars to MPS.  I am starting to think about that shortfall in terms of a giant hungry sinkhole that could swallow up a lot of early childhood programming, math teachers, art, music and phy ed classes and whole schools.  I know our families and staff are also hungry for information.  We keep them informed with weekly letters.

            And – what’s up with all the focus on the residency issue?  I wish legislators could feel that same burning need to fix the school funding formula.   By the way, if you’ve been curious as to what the MPS policy on residency, established in 1975, includes, go to this link and read it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

You don't have to be invited

Governor Walker had a news conference on Wednesday about his proposed biennial budget and invited some school superintendents to appear with him.
Many people asked me whether I was invited.  For the record, I was not.  But I have spoken to the Governor a few times over the past months, and I am confident that we will talk again. 

Governor Walker stated in that news conference that despite the cuts he calls for in public education, school districts would be able to cover their losses because of the provisions in his budget repair bill.  He’s talking about the dissolution of collective bargaining and the increased ability of some districts to boost employee contributions to health insurance and pensions.  Of course, MPS settled a contract with its biggest union before the Governor was elected, and that contract extends through 2013. 

The Governor showed a spread sheet and stated that the financial picture is not so bad for districts such as MPS.  But the governor’s figures were not complete.  He left an entire column of figures out of the equation.  The chart showed only how much of the cut in state aid is offset by the potential savings, and his figures do not include the total reduction in spending authority.  This is a key difference, since the magnitude of the revenue limit reduction, along with the reduction in categorical aids, is much, much greater.  

We will take some additional time to analyze the Governor’s figures, but we stand by the preliminary analysis that has been provided by our Finance Department that the district faces $74 million in cuts proposed by the governor in the coming school year. As some additional financial information becomes available, it is likely that the cut will grow larger.  

I will also assert that there is a greater impact looming, and few people are discussing it.  The lifting of the income limits for parents participating in the voucher program will continue to erode MPS student population, thus further reducing state aid.   And the funding flaw is still not fixed – it has Milwaukee taxpayers picking up more than a third of the cost of each voucher student, even though no voucher students can be counted for the purposes of state aid.  When anyone talks about the full impact to our schools of the Governor’s budget repair bill and the proposed new budget, these things must be mentioned.

There is good information about potential budget impacts circulated by the Department of Public Instruction and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

I think it is important to read as much as you can right now, attend listening sessions and get involved in the discussion.  And you don’t have to be invited to a news conference to do that.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Poverty is Spreading

More Wisconsin children are living in poverty and qualifying for free and reduced school lunches, according to new figures from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.  Read about the 6.8% increase in eligibility for free/reduced lunches in this release from DPI.  The map also released by DPI found here is especially important to see.  Milwaukee is highlighted in red, showing it is one of few districts in the state that have a rate of 70% or more.  The rate in MPS is over 82%. 

Our legislators should see this as more evidence that public education needs more support and not less.  Families growingly rely on their child's school for basic help, such as food service.  Also more districts now have high enough poverty rates to make them eligible for state poverty aids, meaning those poverty aids will have to stretch further.

In line with this talk about food for children, we helped celebrate National School Breakfast Week with an event this morning at Milwaukee Sign Language School.  No media attended, despite our outreach.  We have a clip of video from the event, though, thanks to MPS Communications.  You can see it here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What the impact could be

Many parents and members of the community have approached me, asking about the Governor's proposed 2011-13 biennial budget, and what the potential impacts will be to our school district.

I will write more on this soon.  In the meantime, I wanted to be certain everyone has had a chance to absorb the information in a presentation our Finance Director Gerald Pace made for the School Board's Strategic Planning and Budget Committee last Thursday night (March 3, 2011).  You can find the presentation by clicking here.  Please read through the charts carefully, and become familiar with the picture that this presentation paints.  It will be critical to everyone's understanding of the challenges ahead, as we grapple with a potential $74 million dollars in cuts through a reduction in state aid and an elimination of programs we have held dear, such as the Children at Risk program and funding for Advanced Placement courses. We continue to work with policy analysts with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), who have been helping us to understand the implications of what amounts to an attempt by the Governor to reconfigure public education in this state.  Here is a look at DPI's Initial Summary of the proposed budget.