Madison school board candidate TJ Mertz discusses Walker's budget, voucher schools

By Isthmus Staff, published on The Daily Page 3/28/13

Five candidates are competing for three seats on the Madison school board, with the general election on April 2, 2013.

The political context for the races is explosive, given Gov. Scott Walker's revolutionary proposals for education in Wisconsin: cuts to public school funding, an expansion of the voucher program, and a revamping of teachers' evaluations and bargaining rights.

In Madison, the issues are particularly complex, with the intense disagreements over the district's achievement gap between white and minority students.

TJ Mertz, an Edgewood College history instructor and education blogger, is running unopposed after Sarah Manski dropped out of the race for Seat 5 following the February primary. Her name will appear on the ballot, but she is moving to California. Mertz will replace retiring school board member Maya Cole.

In this competitive series of elections, there are numerous candidate forums and listening sessions under way, and we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates.

For this fourth and final week of questions, we ask candidates to evaluate Gov. Scott Walker's proposals for the Wisconsin's 2013-15 budget, and consider how it would impact schools in the state. Along similar lines, we ask candidates to share their thoughts on the proposal to expand voucher schools in Wisconsin.


TJ Mertz
Walker's budget is another attack on public education. Every aspect of it -- flat revenue caps; small and misdirected aid increases primarily benefiting charter schools, voucher schools, and schools with few students in poverty; use of a flawed "accountability" system to direct aid away from the schools that need it the most, expand vouchers, and remove local control over charter schools; more testing -- moves Wisconsin in the wrong direction. The impact on MMSD is not clear yet, but it won't be good.

Tom Beebe, my friend and colleague from the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) and Opportunity to Learn Wisconsin (OTL-WI), captured it best when he called the Walker budget a "cruel joke." I'm not laughing; I am speaking up and organizing. Everyone who cares about our schools, our students and their futures should be doing the same.

Advocacy needs to be informed and its scope must be statewide. WAES and OTL-WI are great places to learn more and get involved. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards provides a detailed analysis of the budget and advocacy tips.  School Funding Reform for Wisconsin is a new group from Stevens Point doing meaningful work, locally Community and Schools Together has joined in their efforts. Grandparents for Madison Public Schools have also been active. The Wisconsin Budget Project of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families is the best resource on the entire budget.

It is important that our state officials know they have our support as they work for budget changes that will limit or repair the damage done to our schools. Because our voice has been muffled in the gerrymandered legislature, it is even more important to have support for schools voiced statewide. You can help with this by contacting friends and relatives elsewhere in Wisconsin to enlist them in the cause. Ask them to contact their representatives in the Assembly (PDF) andSenate (PDF), provide them with information, then ask them to tell their own stories about why public education is important and to share the impact of past and future cuts on their families and communities.


TJ Mertz
Vouchers are an ideological policy and political tool, not a path to educational improvement. Although some small number of students have benefited educationally from the various schemes, the net effect on students in voucher schools has been minimal, while many have received inferior educations. The impact on those students remaining in public schools has been substantial and negative.

Vouchers remove public control and seek to destroy the very idea of the common, as in "common schools" and "the common good." This is the ideological purpose. Politically, vouchers have lost every time voters have had a direct say via a referendum, but well-funded lobbying and advocacy has produced legislative victories. Voucher advocacy divides to conquer, offering false hopes to exploit the justifiable frustrations of parents and communities seeking improved educational opportunities, and drives wedges between people who need to work together to strengthen our public schools. There has been enough divisiveness in Madison.

For local impacts, MMSD has posted a comprehensive information and advocacy page on vouchers and board member Ed Hughes has his own analysis. Rather than repeat all of this, I want to focus on the low quality of many existing voucher schools.

This was documented in the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction's application (PDF) for a NCLB waiver. DPI prepared a ranked list of the lowest performing Title I schools in the state (based on three years of the admittedly flawed measure of raw WKCE test scores, see page 306 of the linked document). Seven of the bottom 10 were voucher schools, thirteen of the bottom 25were too. Of the 105 schools in the bottom 5%, 46 were voucher schools. If the voucher schools were a district, under Walker's report card-based criteria, they would be labeled "failing" and qualify for voucher expansion. It makes no sense. I keep thinking of the Bob Dylan line: "That's to say like if you got a cold you take a shot of malaria."

All of the advocacy information in my answer the Walker budget applies here. Make your voice heard and enlist others.