Back to School Basics

Let's put Madison schools back at the top of the class

On a tranquil sunny day in June 1962 I graduated from Madison West High School. At the time, it was arguably one of the best high schools in the nation. Most of the five hundred white, parochial small-town kids in my graduating class were college-bound, the majority heading down Regent Street to the UW campus, where many of their parents were professors, and the cream of the crop destined for elite east coast schools. A few went to MATC (at the old Central High School) or joined the military. Some died in Vietnam. To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, we were all above average, and West is still consistently producing the most national merit finalists in the city.
Back then budget debates were benign affairs, nothing like the antagonistic scenarios in today’s dismal economic climate. Wisconsin Historical Society records document that in 1962 Principal Christopherson’s biggest worries might have been requesting funds to repaint the gym, acquiring a new tuba for the band, or purchasing shoulder pads for Coach Hable’s venerable football teams.

Almost fifty years later, the Madison Metropolitan School District is a big business as the fifth-largest employer in the area with a $370 million annual budget, 3,400 employees and nearly 25,000 students. Dramatic ethnic and cultural changes are manifested in increasing challenges for the classroom teacher. Today, 50 percent of the district’s students are non-white, 39 percent are Latino or African American and 17 percent are disabled. Sixty-five languages are spoken, and almost half the students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

The teachers’ union fiercely protects their benefits (including a relatively rich health care plan) and tenure regardless of competency and effectiveness. Federal and state funds represent a declining portion of the local school budget thanks to failed government policies, long-term planning and myopic legislators. Local property taxpayers bear the brunt of the financial support, about 65 percent through property taxes and the rest through a combination of federal, state and charitable giving.

As property taxpayers we own the school system and expect it to be operated efficiently and effectively, but we shouldn’t expect high-quality outcomes to be sustained for our children if we force the system onto a continuous starvation diet. Madison is at the losing end of a zero-sum gain, forcing our leaders to grovel each year to justify innovation in what is taught and how it is taught. I suspect the average Madisonian can’t name one of the eight elected school board members, committed and largely unknown people who believe they were elected to represent the best interests of the students but end up being forced to represent the best interests of taxpayers, competing to find ways to slash and burn budgets each year. How can they, along with the administrative leadership, achieve the district’s mission—“to cultivate the potential in every student to thrive as a global citizen”—when we send them on an annual suicide mission? We should expect them to be competing to find ways to add resources to assure that all our children are the best and the brightest.

We need a major paradigm shift from forcing the board into an impossible annual dance of determining what valuable programs to cut to deciding what new and innovative programs need to be added. We must make big-time investments in our future: the students who will compete and fail on a global scale if we do not adequately prepare them. We shouldn’t passively ignore and accept the school board’s slashing nearly $30 million. At this rate, the board members will be the pallbearers at the school system’s funeral. The end result will be that the brightest children succeed in spite of system failures and all other children receive an inferior education. The most talented teachers will move on to more rewarding careers.

We should seek ways to restore the approximate $80 million cut (and 733 positions) since 1993 to expand our children’s exposure to math, science, technology, languages and multicultural and global learning, including innovative learning experiences. And we should be happy to pay more for the best-qualified teachers. If this amount of money makes you gasp, we spend more on our annual collective forms of entertainment.

For their part, local businesses should become the strongest advocates for a model of excellence. Some have, but many more must step up and lead. A more educated population means an overall higher quality of life for everyone: larger contributions to the community’s development and success; a highly skilled workforce; people with better-paying jobs buying more services and products and paying more taxes (to reinvest in our infrastructure); resources such as health care and the environment being used more wisely; and reduced crime rates. When we short our schools we short our future.

With the strong support and advocacy of area businesses, Madison can retain its traditional claim to be the best public school system in the country and add that to the long list of why Madison is a great place to live.

Martin A. Preizler is Dean of the School of Business at Edgewood College. Reach him at martinapreizler@gmail.com.

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