Governing is harder with diverse opinions

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday. Given the election results, it seems well-timed.

Now that this election season is coming to a close, our soon-to-be newly elected, or re-elected, Wisconsin politicians must turn their attention to solving our state’s problems. If they think that this political campaign was hard, governing a state with such diverse opinions is harder.

Throughout the campaign, Wisconsinites have repeatedly called out the issues that need attention. Wisconsinites consistently identify education and the economy as top issues of concern. Unfortunately, most polls do not delve deep enough into the issues to uncover precisely what the perceived problems are that need addressing, but it can safely be assumed that Wisconsinites want a great education for their kids and a great economy.

When it comes to education, Wisconsinites rightly want our kids to get the best possible education at a cost that we can afford. In the most recent round of test results released by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, less than half of students in third grade through eighth grade are proficient or better in English/language arts or math, and the average composite ACT score for 11th graders was 19.8. These statistics have been consistent for the past several years.

Interpreting test results always depends on one’s perspective, but the general perception is that Wisconsin’s education establishment can do a better job of educating our kids than that. Unfortunately, we have allowed politicians of both parties to fall into the lazy rhetorical position of substituting spending with accomplishments. Spending more money on education does not lead to better outcomes. If that were the case, then we would see it in the test results when we spend more. In fact, the kids who attend choice schools, which generally spend less per student than public schools, achieved higher test scores on average than the kids who attend public schools.

Instead of focusing on how much more we can spend on education, our politicians should advance policies designed to actually improve education. For example, if we look around the world at other educational systems that have better outcomes, they offer some insight into how to do things differently. In some countries, the curriculum is narrower, but deeper. The schools put all of their efforts into ensuring that the students have a deep understanding of core subjects instead of spending time on a more “wellrounded” education. Other school systems have also moved to all-year school to maintain momentum throughout the year. Still others have been aggressive in making sure that disruptive students are removed from the classroom to ensure a quality learning environment for the other students.

In short, in seeking policy prescriptions to improve education, Wisconsin’s politicians should be advancing actual data-driven ideas. Throwing more money into the same education machine expecting different results is lunacy.

When it comes to the economy, there is no dispute that it is booming in Wisconsin. Unemployment is hovering at a record low. Wages are increasing. Wisconsin’s historic economic engines, like manufacturing and agriculture, are strengthening again. Meanwhile, Wisconsin is attracting and growing new economic pillars like high-tech manufacturing and biotech. The biggest problem Wisconsin has right now is that there are more jobs than qualified people to fill them.

Economies are naturally complex and the reasons for the current boom are myriad. The policies and attitude of Wisconsin’s state government over the past few years can certainly claim some credit. Lower taxes, state agencies that strive to work with businesses, regulatory reforms, stable state finances, and a quality transportation infrastructure have all created an environment in which businesses can succeed.

When it comes to the economy, as with most things, the best government is the least government. As the state’s politicians enter the new year, they must not act to disrupt the economic policies that are working by introducing higher taxes, more regulations, or fostering an adversarial relationship with businesses. Instead, they should focus on the economic issues that need addressing, like attracting more workers to move to Wisconsin.

Most of all, as Wisconsin’s freshly elected politicians settle into their jobs, they must remember that not every problem requires a government solution. Most of the time, the best solution is for government to get out of the way.