Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News this week. It is particularly apropos in light of the state DPI releasing their budget request asking for more and more money.
The data is telling. The more we have spent on K-12 education, the worse the results have gotten. If we are to make data-driven decisions, there are only two conclusions. 1) There is no correlation between money spent and educational outcomes. The outcomes are a result of other inputs. 2) There is a negative correlation between money spent and educational outcomes. More money actually results in poorer outcomes.
Personally, I think the answer is #2. Here’s why: once basic needs are funded (we did that a long time ago), more money becomes a distraction from core education. Every administrator, department, specialist, etc. who is hired is looking for something to do. They create new curriculum, new programs, change standards, create study committees, have meetings, and on and on and on. All of that is time that is not being spent in classrooms teaching core subjects in proven ways.
This happens in corporate America too. When companies get fat, they spend a lot of time-wasting energy around the edges of their core businesses and profits erode. That’s why the market tends to love it when a company cuts fat in a deep layoff.
Anyway, here’s the column. Look at the data:
The first step in the renowned twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit that you have a problem. One cannot begin the path to recovery if one does not admit to having a problem. Well, Wisconsin has a huge problem. Our government education system is utterly failing our kids and it is getting worse every year. Our governor, Tony Evers, with a lifetime spent in government education, accepts such failure as normal and acceptable. It is not.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, every significant benchmark of student achievement is in freefall since well before the abysmal response of government schools accelerated the decline. Student proficiency on the ACT is down.
Between 2016-2017 and 2020-2021, the percentage of Wisconsin eleventh graders who were proficient or better on the English language arts part of the ACT, which measures understanding of English, writing, and knowledge of language, dropped from 39.5% to 33%. That is a 16.4% drop in scores in five years.
Math scores are even worse. Over the same time span, the percentage of Wisconsin’s eleventh graders who were proficient or better at mathematics dropped from 35.7% to 25.5%. That is a 28.6% drop in proficiency in just five years.
The story is the same for the ACT Aspire, which is given to ninth and tenth graders. Proficiency in English dropped from 41.2% to 32.4% between 2016-2017 and 2020-2021. In Mathematics, proficiency dropped from 37.1% to 29.8%. Those are declines of 21.4% and 19.7%, respectively.
Looking at the younger students between third and eight grades who take the Forward exams, the decline remains consistent and persistent. On the Forward exam over the same five years, the number of students who were proficient or better in English language arts declined 24.1% from 44.4% to 33.7%. In mathematics, their scores declined 21.5% from 42.8% to 33.6%.
But let us step back from the cold numbers for a moment and put them in perspective. The fact than only 33.7% of Wisconsin’s students between third and eighth grades are at least proficient in English language arts is abysmal. According to the DPI, the Forward Exam tests what, “students should know and be able to do in order to be college and career ready.” That means that barely a third of Wisconsin’s students are meeting grade-level standards to be ready to attend college or start a career. Only one in three of Wisconsin’s kids are proficient in English or math — two key skills for success as an adult.
What the heck are we doing? Is that really good enough? Two-thirds of our kids are falling behind and we collectively shrug and accept it? Have we been so cowed by the government education bullies that we are willing to accept that their failure is normal and satisfactory?
Our governor thinks it is. On his campaign website, he brags about his accomplishments on education. As proof, he noticeably fails to mention anything about student achievement. Instead, he cites the fact that the state spends more money than ever on K-12 education. If the spending is not resulting on better results for our kids, then what is the point?
In fact, the more we spend, the worse our student achievement is getting. According to DPI data, between the 2016-2017 and 2020-2021 school years, total state and local spending on government K-12 schools ballooned 14.8% from $11.5 billion to $13.2 billion. Over the same period, total enrollment declined 3.6% from 855,307 to 823,827 students. That is a whopping 19% increase in spending per student over just five years.
What are we getting for our money? Why are we continuing to pump more money into government bureaucracy who produces increasingly poor results every year? Governor Tony Evers recently announced that he wants to spend an additional $2 billion on K-12 schools. Given that a $1.7 billion increase in spending over the last five years resulted in a 24.1% drop in English scores on the Forward exam, will another $2 billion push scores down further?
Like any addiction, spending more money on it makes it worse because the spending obscures the real problems. In Wisconsin, we have been failing our kids and making ourselves feel better about it by spending more money on them. They do not need more money. They need a quality education and our government education establishment is increasingly unable or unwilling to give them that education.
It is time to stop. Stop the excessive spending. Stop the pretending that our government education system works. Stop accepting abysmal performance as normal or acceptable. Stop rewarding failure. Admit that we have a real problem and we are failing our kids at every grade level.
We cannot begin on the path to fixing our government education system until we admit that it has failed. As a lifelong insider of that system, Governor Tony Evers is never going to take the first step to recovery. We need a governor who will.
We need a governor who will focus on outcomes instead of inputs. We need a governor who will value our kids more than the system. Let me rephrase that … our kids need a governor who will value them more than government workers. Tony Evers is not that governor.