17 Nov

Critical to Public Education – define the frame, communicate the vision

Public education advocates have shied away from taking sides in the political battle for the future of education. “We shouldn’t be mixing our kids’ education with politics ….. it’s unseemly,” the theory goes. “Besides, we don’t want to make the other side angry.” Get over it, folks. That boat has sailed.

It doesn’t matter whether you are Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, red or green, public education in your hometown is at a crossroads. Recent Wisconsin history shows what could happen, and the most recent election only solidified the grip on our public schools of their most strident critics and powerful opponents.

You don’t have to join a political party to influence change, either. All you have to do is act on your instincts that Wisconsin’s public schools are the heart of every community in the state. They anchor our local economies and provide a “sense of us” for everyone. Public schools show young adults what’s possible and help them figure out how to make “the possible” happen.

Right or left, public education is the foundation for what is good about the Badger State.

Our future—and the future of every one of our public school children—depends on us effectively defining the debate and discussion in the coming days, weeks, months, and years based on our common values and the moral imperative of educating future generations.

Most public education advocates understand the crisis. For example, we have borne witness to the rapid march of privatization through the expanding taxpayer-subsidized private school scheme.

What is different now is that anti-public education forces are even more entrenched and powerful. They have public schools in their sights and the ability to pass whatever legislation they see fit. While we all stand at the door to stop them, we must ask ourselves if we are prepared—as a loose organization—to counter the well-organized and funded forces arrayed against our children, our public schools, and our communities.

The lack of a cohesive and positive message and vision led to the continuing disaster for Wisconsin’s public schools. The failure was recently well documented by George Lakoff. The post-election vacuum Lakoff describes will be filled by whoever acts first. Our first job, as public education leaders and advocates, is to fill it with positive messaging and framing that will define the upcoming discussion around public education.

This memo will give public education advocates the frame and message necessary to fill that void. In order for us to be successful, we must follow some fundamental guidelines that are critical to elevating public discourse on this critical issue:

  • We must all be immediately consistent, repetitive, and collaborative to get this message and our core values into public discourse. This will provide needed context for our stories, anecdotes, and facts.
  • We must avoid giving in to fear and vitriol. It is our responsibility to provide a positive, constructive, and progressive vision to our communities as an effective counter to the anti-public education forces. It is important to listen carefully to “the other side” in order to find their vulnerabilities and where they share our progressive values. Remember, Republicans and Democrats share progressive values—especially about their public schools. If we fail to listen, we miss opportunities to connect with them.
  • Use the ideas, language, and values below to evoke the unconscious core values most people share. Then follow up with personal, local, and truthful stories and examples consistent with those ideas, language, and values. It is important to realize that people understand government and policy at a basic, very personal level.

Based on those ideas, how do we retake the high ground and save our public schools?

If we are to lead against privatization we need to use the best tools we have. We can and must present a completely different moral vision of education ….. a vision that is MUCH MORE important than saying “education only exists so people can be career ready and get a job.” We have a responsibility to plant a tree in whose shade we will never sit. It is our moral obligation to invest in our future by investing in our children and their public education.

  • Public education is a moral issue and we should talk about it in those terms. All politics are moral and as public education advocates we are “moral actors.” Our schools are what is good and right for Wisconsin, so talk about it in those terms. People will respond to our leadership and vote on our shared morals and values. They will not respond to or vote on a laundry list of facts and issues. Take the moral high-ground and elevate discourse above that old politics of fear. Connect with your friends and neighbors of all political persuasions about their local public schools.
  • Express WHY public education matters to your community. You need to express positive and proactive visions and ideas that retake the moral high ground and put us on the offensive. It’s time to force those who want to privatize public education and rip out the heart of our communities to defend themselves on OUR terms.
  • Keep using the message that public schools are the heart of our communities. This has been effective in elevating public schools to be about what is good in their families and their lives on a daily basis. For many, “their schools” helped to make them a success. Keep reminding folks of the fact that great public schools make for great communities. You can’t have one without the other!
  • Talk about public schools as a moral obligation that provides opportunity and freedom for all children. Public education is the only institution where all children learn necessary skills and knowledge. Remind people “their schools” are where youngsters become young adults ….. where they learn what is meaningful and what is possible in their lives, just as their parents and grandparents have. Who among us have not had their lives changed for the better because of their public school experience? Reinforce the philosophy behind public education and that without it there is no democracy and no freedom.

These four “thinking points” give you the tools to consistently and effectively express why public schools are the heart of your communities. They are values that the majority of people will agree with, regardless of their political affiliation.

Now that our quiver has tools, it’s time to use them to undermine the views of those who would privatize and destroy public education ….. while staying positive and expressing our core, community values.

So, how do we undermine the “voucher” frame?

First, it is imperative to stop using the terms “voucher” and “choice.” Both of these terms, in today’s usage, have achieved metaphorical status: People unconsciously think of the words as positive/constructive, conservative, and that reinforces their very values and existence.


  • Call them “subsidized” or “taxpayer-subsidized” private schools. The strategy behind this is based on sound science and research. Most anti-public education people also dislike subsidies of any kind. This then differentiates between the “public” and “private.” In the context of public education (effectively communicated as above), subsidizing a private school is unjust and most importantly, immoral.
  • Constantly point out that research proves that “taxpayer-subsidized private schools are systemically destroying our public schools.” Based on all legitimate research, subsidized-private schools are able to skim students and skim money from our community schools–stealing these critical assets and contributing to systemic destruction of “my child’s public school.” Milwaukee is a perfect example of this systemic causation.
  • Be smarter than “they” are. Don’t use their language and their stories. Create stories based on our core values and views of public education ….. stories that also undermine anti-public education views and values. For example, “Subsidized private schools are a cancer destroying the heart of our communities.”

This metaphorical statement, when it reaches the public discourse, will be very powerful. It effectively reinforces the “heart of the community” metaphor, which is already accepted, along with providing negative images to associate with the destruction being caused by subsidized- private schools.

If we are going to save public education as we know and value it, we have to think about what we’ve done in the past. Based purely on results, our strategies and tactics haven’t worked. By almost any measure, the schools in our communities—and more important, the children in them—are worse off than they were a decade ago.

A good place to start is to set aside our territorial dust-ups and work together discussing our core values, working out a common message, and going on the offensive for a public education system that is necessary to freedom, opportunity, and community.

Authors: Scott Wittkopf, Tom Beebe

Questions: scott@forwardinstitutewi.org, tomb@forwardinstitutewi.org

07 Sep

New Study Shows Wisconsin School Funding System Broken; Opportunity Gaps Increasing Over Time

The Forward Institute is releasing an important new study on Monday, September 8, commissioned by the Association for Equity in Funding (AEF). The study, “Segregation of Opportunity: A Longitudinal Study of Wisconsin Education Funding” used 8 years of school finance and tax data to examine the statewide impact of the current funding formula on Wisconsin community schools.

The study provides strong evidence that the current school finance system is no longer fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide Wisconsin students an equal educational opportunity as defined in the State Supreme Court Vincent v. Voight decision in 2000. Further, the school funding mechanism is contributing to greater education opportunity gaps based on where a student lives, contrary to the core purpose of the school funding system.

The following statement can be attributed to study lead author Scott Wittkopf:

                “This study clearly demonstrates a systemic failure to ensure that the moral purpose of public education, as defined by the Court in Vincent v. Voight is being fulfilled:               

An equal opportunity for a sound basic education is one that will equip students for their roles as citizens and enable them to succeed economically and personally. 

The Court recognized the moral purpose of public education beyond “career” or “work readiness.” Public education is necessary for children to acquire skills and knowledge to pursue what is meaningful in life, and to have freedom to even know what is meaningful. It is clear that the school finance system is Wisconsin is no longer fulfilling its mission to provide the financial basis for equal educational opportunity as defined in the Vincent v. Voight decision to every child, regardless of district, need or demographic. In fact, it is contributing to a new type of segregation – that of income inequality. As inequitable funding remains a moral issue in Wisconsin, segregation will exacerbate due to systemic funding inequity. We call on a bipartisan effort to fix this broken system, and restore the moral promise to all of our children – the promise of educational opportunity for every child.”

The full study, raw data and macro workbooks with figures and tables for each Wisconsin public school district are available from our home page (look for the blue tab “2014 Wisconsin School Funding Study”) or at this link.

26 Jun

Forward Institute Statement on Budget Passage

The Forward Institute Board of Directors issued this statement regarding legislative passage of the budget:

The Wisconsin Legislature has passed a budget which will do long-term damage to education in Wisconsin. In expanding the private voucher program statewide, failing to keep up with inflation in funding public schools, failing to address student poverty issues, and unfairly rewarding select schools and students, Wisconsin Legislators are basing bad policy solely on multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and lobbying efforts, not the evidence for what works in schools.  The most important function of state government is the support of public education (Brown v. Board of Education, majority opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren, 1954); the majority party in Wisconsin has passed a budget which is a fundamental governing failure. Every citizen in Wisconsin will be negatively affected by this budget. 

1. Statewide expansion of private voucher schools increases spending by hundreds of millions of dollars on a program which has failed in its fundamental purpose:  provide a better educational alternative for children of poverty. After twenty-plus years of the Milwaukee experiment, voucher schools have shown no positive benefit to student outcome and have almost no accountability to the taxpayers.

2.  Voucher school expansion increases the financial burden on local public schools, especially those in areas of high poverty, as state funding fails to keep up with inflation. Students in rural and urban areas of poverty continue to be denied equal access to educational opportunity compared to their more fortunate peers.  This is fundamentally in violation of Article X(2) Section 3 of the State Constitution and Wisconsin state statute 121.01.

3. Property taxes will continue to increase. Funding for the private voucher program is taken from the education budget first, with public school funding coming out of the remaining revenues.  As state revenue for public education continues to diminish relative to costs and inflation, property taxpayers will shoulder the burden for the local funding gap in public education. This is also in violation of state statute 121.01 on public school financing.

4. The budget provisions allow existing voucher schools to accept students statewide, without the new students counting toward the enrollment cap. This statewide expansion is contrary to the original, bi-partisan voucher experiment as established during Tommy Thompson’s tenure as Governor.

5. The budget limits accountability for educational outcomes by explicitly forbidding the Department of Public Instruction from reporting voucher school and student data without the consent of individual schools, data that public schools are required to provide. This intentionally prevents comparative analyses of the effectiveness of voucher school programs.

Forward Institute applauds lawmakers’ agreement with our policy recommendation to abandon the use of School Report Cards to make critical school financing decisions. The remainder of the education budget is a disaster, ignoring critical evidence presented in the months preceding debate. Legislators who advocated for passage of the education budget have demonstrated they are not interested in creating evidence-based policy.  Wisconsin’s heritage of forward thinking public education is threatened by policies driven by outside   lobby groups that want to compete for public funds, instead of focusing those funds on improving our troubled schools. The Forward Institute will continue to advocate for effective, evidence-based public policy in Wisconsin through independent research and communication efforts, and engagement across partisan lines.

Forward Institute Board of Directors

(A pdf file is available here: Forward Institute Budget Passage Statement 2013)

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06 Jun

Report – Education Budget Places Heavier Education Funding Burden on Property Taxpayers

Based on the reported provisions of the education budget and state fiscal data, Forward Institute analysis shows that local property taxpayers will shoulder an increasing share of public education funding. This is potentially a violation of Wisconsin State Statutes regarding school finance.

Wisconsin Statute 121.01 regarding school finance, general aid:

“It is declared to be the policy of this state that education is a state function and that some relief should be afforded from the local general property tax as a source of public school revenue where such tax is excessive, and that other sources of revenue should contribute a larger percentage of the total funds needed.”

Compiling data from the Department of Public Instruction and Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows that for the first time since the adoption of Wisconsin Statute 121.01, local property taxes will fund a greater portion of the public education budget than state aid.


Hastily written, behind-the-scenes political deals never result in good public policy. This budget proposal is no different. Not only does it potentially violate state education funding statute 121.01 and place a greater burden on local property taxpayers, but it has opened the door for Governor Scott Walker to use the line item veto to simply eliminate the student enrollment limit on the voucher program. The result, as is clear from our analysis, would continue Wisconsin down a fiscally irresponsible path for public education.

The full report can be viewed at Education Budget Report June 6, 2013.

15 May

Wisconsin Budget Policy and Poverty in Education

Forward Institute has released its new study at a press conference in Milwaukee’s City Hall. The following remarks were made by Chair Scott Wittkopf, highlighting the most important findings of the comprehensive study.

Wisconsin has always been a leader in K-12 public education because we have long valued the right of every child to receive a quality public education. The fundamental nature of our values is reflected in the State Constitution, which guarantees all children equal access to educational opportunity in our public schools. That constitutional right is now being systematically eroded and defunded. The research presented in this report shows that current fiscal policy and education funding are depriving our poorest students access to a sound public education. Public schools are not failing our children, Wisconsin legislators and policymakers are failing the public schools that serve our children.

Our comprehensive report documents in detail that the resources being afforded schools and students of poverty are insufficient, and facing further reduction. Moreover, the resources being diverted from schools of poverty into non-traditional alternative education programs are producing questionable results with little to no accountability for the state funding they receive.

The following seven points highlight critical findings of our study:

1. The number of students in poverty has nearly doubled since 1997, increasing from 24% of all students to 42% (Reference Poster Figure 1). At the same time, inflation-adjusted state funding of public education has fallen to its lowest level in over 17 years. On average, schools with higher poverty enrollment levels have experienced per-pupil funding cuts over 2 times the cuts in the most affluent districts.

2. Analyzing state testing data revealed a paradox within economically disadvantaged (ED) students scoring proficient or advanced. As ED enrollment increased, the percentage of ED students scoring proficient or advanced also increased. Our analysis discovered that as more children dropped into ED due to economic circumstances, they brought their typically higher test scores into the ED group. This has resulted in the false perception that poorer students’ test proficiency rates have been rising. Further, as ED enrollment approaches 50%, we are seeing a plateau and beginning of a downward trend in ED scores. A student who begins in poverty does not have previously higher scores to bring into a cohort, as we observed over the past decade. Therefore, we can expect to see a growing achievement gap between ED and non-ED test scores in the coming decade. 

3. If the Walker proposal to increase voucher school funding is adopted, over $2,000 more will go to a K-8 voucher student than a public school student. A voucher high school student will receive nearly $3000 more in state aid than a public school student (Reference Poster Figure #2). When controlling for inflation, K-8 voucher schools will have seen a $400 increase, and voucher high schools a $1000 increase in per student funding from the 1999 school year. In comparison, public schools will have seen a $1000 per student decrease from the 1999 level. The economic disparities in state funding between voucher and public schools are important in the education funding debate. As we will demonstrate, there is evidence that voucher schools have no positive effect on student graduation/attainment levels or test scores. This raises the question, is there sufficient evidence to support the claim of voucher advocates that voucher schools afford a better educational opportunity to students? Based on the data, we conclude the evidence does not support this claim.

4. The new School Report Card scores released by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) have a strong correlation to the level of poverty in any given school and school district (reference poster figure #3). Nearly half of the school-to-school difference in Report Card Scores can be explained by the difference in poverty level from school to school. When compared to other factors at the school district level such as teacher experience, racial demographics, and per pupil revenue limits, poverty still accounts for 44% of the school district difference in Report Card scores. This fact makes any use of the DPI School Report Cards for significant funding or incentive decisions poor public policy.

5. The Walker budget proposes to expand voucher schools into districts where School Report Card scores “fail to meet expectations.”  This proposal will assure that more schools and school districts of high poverty will lose resources. As we have shown, School Report Card scores are directly correlated to level of poverty, and districts with underperforming schools are therefore districts with schools of higher poverty. Funding to operate the voucher school expansion will come directly out of those public schools of highest poverty. 

6. Milwaukee voucher program students underperform Milwaukee Public School (MPS) students on statewide tests, with a lower percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced. In the Milwaukee voucher program (based on two years’ (2010-2012) data) over 20 children graduate for every child testing proficient in 10th grade reading. The statewide ratio is about 1:1. The MPS ratio is about 2:1. In mathematics, the statewide ratio is about 1:1, MPS ratio is about 3:1, and the voucher student ratio is over 50:1.That means over 20 voucher students graduate for every voucher student proficient in 10th grade reading, and over 50 voucher students graduate for every voucher student proficient in 10th grade mathematics. This translates into a much higher cost in state aid for a voucher student to become proficient or advanced than an MPS or high poverty statewide student to become proficient or advanced (reference poster figure #4).  This provides a stark illustration of the high cost to taxpayers for low student proficiency in the voucher program, and raises a significant question of educational adequacy for voucher schools, as the expectation should be for a high school graduate to be proficient in reading and math.

7. As a result of recent budget decisions resulting in education austerity, there is strong evidence that the current public education funding and delivery system in Wisconsin is unconstitutional. When compared to their more affluent peers, students of poverty are not receiving an adequate public education as defined by State Supreme Court precedent, statutes, and the State Constitution. Further, the system has created two distinct classes of students, those of poverty and non-poverty. Both groups have predictable outcomes based on level of poverty. Recent budgeting decisions are exacerbating this dichotomy.

Based on our conclusions, we present the following 5 policy recommendations:

1. Fair Funding – The Legislature should approve, and the Governor should sign, Dr. Tony Evers’ “Fair Funding” formula into law. This would be a first step toward addressing the increasing needs of rural and urban districts most affected by poverty.

2. Address Issues of Poverty and Education – The two greatest challenges to ensuring a prosperous and vibrant Wisconsin for future generations are poverty and education. The Governor should join with non-partisan, bi-partisan, broad-based constituent groups to appoint a “Blue Ribbon Commission.” This commission should be charged with a one-year mission to develop a statewide plan bringing parents and communities (rural and urban) impacted by poverty together for the purpose of implementing an intervention plan to address poverty and education issues. There are already successful models in communities that address the external poverty issues that have negative effects on education. Achievement gaps are largely attributable to factors outside of school walls. If Wisconsin is to substantially narrow these gaps, education policy must incorporate health and nutrition supports and after-school enrichment to address barriers to learning that are driven by child poverty.

3. Voucher Program Sunset – The twenty-year Milwaukee and one-year Racine private school voucher experiment should be sunsetted by the Legislature in 2024. The voucher experiment can show no positive voucher school effects on student outcomes and attainment, beyond what already can be attributed to the voucher schools’ select student demographic and parental factors. Taxpayers should not be forced to fund a second statewide school district, nor an expensive entitlement program, when the public schools are not failing. It is, in fact, the state of Wisconsin that is failing public schools and the children they serve. Dividing resources between two statewide school districts exacerbates this growing problem in the face of increasing poverty rates.

4. Charter Schools – Charter schools eligible for state aid should be allowed only under the auspices and as an instrumentality of an existing public school district to ensure public accountability in fiscal, academic, staff, and student functions.

5. School Report Cards – School Report Cards issued by DPI should be used as part of the big picture to measure overall school and student performance along with other standards and measures, balancing “input” (educational access, quality, services, resources, etc.) and “output” (student results). It should be acknowledged that the use of School Report Cards exclusively for reward, incentive, funding, penalty, or other fiscal consequence is improper, poor public policy, and would further erode access to educational opportunity.

This report demonstrates in detail that the resources being afforded schools and students of poverty are insufficient, and indeed are facing further reduction. Moreover, the resources being diverted from schools of poverty into non-traditional alternative education programs are producing questionable results with little to no accountability for the funding they receive. The failure of Wisconsin policy makers to acknowledge and address these issues is creating a generation of economically disadvantaged students that will lag far behind their more fortunate peers.

Public schools are not failing Wisconsin’s students, the state of Wisconsin is failing the public schools which serve these students.

The full report can be accessed here:

Wisconsin Budget Policy and Poverty in Education 2013

The full data will be posted within two days on our “Research” page.

30 Nov

Forward Institute to release Wisconsin School Report Card Study

The Forward Institute and State Senator Kathleen Vinehout will hold a Press Conference on Wednesday, December 5th at 10:00 am, in the Senate Parlor at the Wisconsin State Capitol to release a new study on the Wisconsin School Report Cards.

The study analyzed all available Report Card score data for Wisconsin Schools, and the results will have a significant impact on the statewide Education Policy discussion for the coming Legislative Session.  Representatives from the Forward Institute will be on hand to brief the press and public on the study findings and answer questions.

The study addresses critical links between poverty and education in Wisconsin public and non-traditional charter schools.

While the public is invited to the Press Conference on December 5th, Forward Institute will post the full study with all supporting data and references on this website and our Facebook page early on Wednesday, December 5th – BEFORE the Press Conference at the Capitol.

To receive the report before it is released to the public, follow Forward Institute on this website, Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ForwardInstitute), or Twitter                        (@ForwardInstWI).

Link to Press Conference Invitation