Educationally speaking, Wisconsin is a good state. It has a long history of fine schools and some of the best teachers in the county, combining to produce students whose test scores regularly rank near the top in the nation.
Unfortunately, education in Wisconsin has recently adopted a decidedly grimmer legacy: bloated administrative costs. The recent reaction to Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Green's K-12 education plan proved it again.
The hallmark of Mr. Green's proposal deals with the amount of money school districts spend on classroom costs. Mr. Green would require schools to devote 70 percent of funding to classroom expenses. Operating under no mandate, school districts in Wisconsin on average currently spend 66 percent of their funding on in-classroom instructional costs. By shifting dollars to the classroom, the proposal would lead to the hiring of more teachers, equip their classrooms with more instructional materials and even reward good teachers with merit pay.
Teachers should love the plan, right? Wrong, at least according to the state's major teacher unions, who universally derided the proposal. The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) issued a press release lambasting the plan by vaguely saying that the 70 percent mandate would "short-change" schools. How so is unclear, but never one to shy away from partisanship, WEAC automatically despises anything not introduced by Jim Doyle.
The Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of Teachers got more specific in their press release, which they released a month ago after gaining wind of Mr. Green's proposal. Quoting a Standard & Poor's study, AFT-Wisconsin said "there is no significant positive correlation between the percentage of funds that districts spend on instruction and the percentage of students who score proficient or higher on state reading or math tests."
The quote, of course, suggests there is no connection between the performance of a teacher and the performance of his or her students. A school district might as well fire all its teachers and instead show students a continuous loop of film strips every day — it would save a boatload of money on instructional costs and students' test performance wouldn't drop at all.
How can a teachers' union make such an irrational argument? The problem is that the unions are too ingrained in an educational system that has been overrun by an inflated bureaucracy. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Wisconsin ranks eighth in the nation in the percentage of school funding used for administrative purposes at 12.4 percent. The national average is 11 percent.
The funny thing is, there are legitimate beefs with Mr. Green's proposal. Bus service, building maintenance and heating costs would all feel the squeeze since they don't fit under the instructional costs category. That's a problem, because if a student can't get to school, or if he can't concentrate because the building is too cold, it doesn't matter how much is being spent to educate him.
So though his intentions are good, Mr. Green's plan needs tweaking. Instead of mandating instructional funding at no less than 70 percent, why not limit administrative costs to more than 11 percent, the national average? The shift in funding might only be a percent or two, but more importantly it would send a message: children are educated by teachers, not administrators.
A similar situation has developed at the university level, where a legislative audit two years ago revealed far higher administrative costs than the university itself reported. Reducing the costs has not been a UW priority since.
Education leaders, both at the K-12 and university level, have complained loudly in recent years about diminishing state support for their institutions. They're right, but navigating around a sticky budget situation has to be a two-way street, and as long as schools devote exorbitant money to their own bureaucracy it's hard to have sympathy for them.
Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is the editorial board chairman of The Badger Herald.