19th century schools in 21st century

Phil Anderson

“We have to invest more in schools, universities. You know, historically, the source of prosperity has been education and a relatively equal level of education.” Thomas Piketty, economist and author.

Our public school systems are based on the agricultural society of the past. The school year, property tax funding, and local school boards are relics of a 19th century rural society.

But we live in a 21st century digital world with a global economy. We need a new, more equal, foundation for delivering education and paying for public schools.

Local school boards are an anachronism. They no longer serve a useful purpose and often do more harm than good. There is nothing local about the educational needs of today’s students.

The knowledge and skills needed are not different based on where one lives. There should not be differences in the quality of education from one school district to another. All students deserve – and all of us would benefit from – equal educational opportunity.

This is widely recognized but still we cling to the myth of “local “control with local school boards.
In Wisconsin we have 421 “independent” school districts. But most educational standards, curriculum requirements, teacher certification and similar regulations are established at the state or federal levels.

In Wisconsin, 52% of the funding is from state and federal sources and 48% comes from local property taxes. This means the quality of education a child gets is often tied to where they live. Wealthier urban and suburban districts, with a lot of valuable property, can support better schools. Districts in rural areas, or communities with lower property values, are often inadequately funded.

Funding schools with local property taxes is another legacy of the 19th century. There is no logical reason to pay for schools with property taxes. It is simply a tradition. Nor is it necessary or beneficial to leave the financial management of schools in local hands. No other statewide public service is financed with property taxes or controlled by local boards.

Too often the motivation for getting on the school board is to keep property taxes low. Quality education, and the needs of children, are a lower priority.

Wisconsin does try to mitigate the funding problems for small, rural and low-income districts. There is a complex system of general aid, categorical aid, grants and programs intended to equalize funding. But this complex, inefficient system often doesn’t produce fair or equal funding. It produces bureaucracy.

In 1993 the state legislature imposed revenue caps on local school districts. This was another effort to control local property taxes. Revenue caps were predicated on the state paying two thirds of schools operating costs (which has not been honored by later legislatures).

The financially “independent” school districts can still levy tax increases. But if the increase exceeds the cap they loose state aid money. For more than 20 years many schools districts have been forced to cut teachers, support staff, elective classes and institute fees for extracurricular activities to deal with inflationary costs and declining revenues.

Districts do have an option to override the revenue caps by using local referendums. Many school districts have used this option. Voters in 400 school districts have passed property tax increases at least once since 1993. But relying on referendums for budgeting is not a good long term management.

Referendums cannot be used every year. They create uncertainty, hinder future planning, and can be disastrous when the hoped for result fails.

All this complex, convoluted, inefficient mess is a terrible way to manage school funding. It produces a great deal of political wrangling at the state and local levels while leaving schools unequally and inadequately funded. Funded all local schools with statewide income taxes would be much better.

It is time we created a consolidated administrative structure that provides stable financing, reduces costs, and maximizes learning. There should be one state-run system for all our schools. All schools should be owned and operated by the state Department of Education (like other state agencies with statewide services). The system could be overseen by a single, non-political, statewide school board.

Many districts could be consolidated while maintaining local schools.

Administrative overhead costs could be greatly reduced by eliminating highly paid district administrators, consolidating accounting, personnel management, purchasing, functions, and integrating school staff into state employee health care and benefit programs.

All teachers and support staff should be state employees. All teachers would be paid on a statewide schedule, reducing variations in teacher experience and quality for rural areas and smaller communities.

Teachers should be hired using a statewide civil service testing process that eliminates who-you-know as a criteria. Too many teachers are hired because they went to the local school, attend the right church, coach a sport, or have personal connections. This is a major problem with local school boards exclusively controlling hiring.

Academic and professional qualifications are too often secondary factors. Again, all students should get the same education and the same quality of teachers anywhere in the state.

Teachers are critical to quality education. Teaching should be a well paid, respected profession that attracts the best and brightest. The public should expect high standards of education, professionalism and performance from teachers.

Teacher training should be rigorous, especially in the subject content areas. Teachers should be doers as well as teachers. But they also need to know about teaching. There should be apprentice, journey and master levels of teachers and all teachers should have to work up through an on-the-job training program.

Teachers need support. Like lawyers and doctors, teachers need the support of many para-professionals. There should be teacher aides (or apprentices) in every classroom. There should be nurses, social workers, and counselors available in every school. There should be adult supervision other than these professionals on buses, in halls, and on playgrounds.

Another anachronism is the school year. Students no longer need to help on the farm in the summer. It is well known that the summer vacations retard learning. There should be year-round school schedules.

Quality education for all students is essential for the prosperity and future well being of all of us. This will cost money. It will take new thinking and new organizational structures. Relying on a 19th century school administration model will not get the job done.