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.

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.

28 May

Letter to Joint Finance Committee Concerning Education Budget

Forward Institute Chair Scott Wittkopf submitted the following letter to the Joint Finance Committee today, Tuesday, May 28 (JFC Letter 2013):

Dear Senator Darling, Representative Nygren, and Members of the Joint Finance Committee,

The Forward Institute’s recent study; “Wisconsin Budget Policy and Poverty in Education” has received bi-partisan support and addresses critical issues regarding education funding, state budget, and student outcomes. This letter is to urge you to adopt education funding policy based on the best evidence available, setting ideology aside. Our report addresses the following educational policy issues relevant to the current DPI budget:

The private school voucher expansion proposal should be removed from the budget and introduced as separate policy legislation. It is inappropriate to continue pushing voucher expansion as part of a public education budget proposal. Our study clearly demonstrates that after more than twenty years, the Milwaukee private school voucher experiment can show no measurable educational outcome benefit to students when compared to Milwaukee Public Schools. Studies conducted by the pro-voucher School Choice Demonstration Project reach similar conclusions. Private voucher schools in Milwaukee are underperforming the Milwaukee public schools they are supposed to be a better alternative for, and are actually more costly per pupil to the state for worse results in student proficiency. This important debate must take into account all relevant facts and statewide impact of expanding such an expensive subsidy, which will not happen under cover of the biennial budget.

The Joint Finance Committee should begin to implement Dr. Tony Evers’ “Fair Funding Formula” as the first step to addressing the harsh inequities in Wisconsin’s existing education funding system. In the face of increasing economic stress and growing student poverty in public school districts statewide, we submit that it is not appropriate for the state to continue subsidizing unaccountable private religious education that produces questionable results. As our report clearly shows, the best use of the taxpayer education dollar is the public schools. Further, the impact of poverty on education in Wisconsin is not being addressed by current policy. In fact, we can predict with certainty that under the status quo the student effects of poverty will get worse in the coming decade.

The critical issues surrounding the growing dichotomy in Wisconsin education between children of poverty, and those of non-poverty must be addressed by the Legislature. There is a direct correlation between student/school outcome and rate of poverty not being addressed by the Legislature. The state of Wisconsin is failing our students, public schools are not failing. The current budget proposals will only make the situation worse. Further, as our report demonstrates, the current funding and delivery system in Wisconsin may no longer be Constitutional.

It is time to begin addressing these critical education issues in Wisconsin. Two immediate steps the Joint Finance Committee ought to take are removing the voucher program expansion proposal from the budget, and begin adopting Dr. Evers’ Fair Funding Formula. We urge you to make these education policy decisions based on evidence, not ideology.


Scott Wittkopf, Chair

Forward Institute


14 May

Forward Institute Report to be released tomorrow

Forward Institute will release its new study, “Wisconsin Budget Policy and Poverty in Education, a Study of the Impact of School Funding on Educational Opportunity” at a press conference at Milwaukee’s City Hall. The public press event starts at 10:00 am, and the public is encouraged to attend.

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 press events continue at the Central Library in Green Bay, 3:00 pm Wednesday (May 15); La Crosse, Southside Neighborhood Center, 11:00 am Thursday (May 16); Kickapoo High School, 1:30 pm Thursday (May 16); and concludes in Madison, at the State Capitol Hearing Room 225 NW at 10:00 am on Friday (May 17).

For further information, contact Scott Wittkopf – scott@www.forwardinstitutewi.org



03 Apr

Forward Institute Releases Review of Voucher Student Attainment Study

Study analysis shows voucher schools have no significant effect on high school, college attainment – Parental factors are more important.

In February 2012, the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) at the University of Arkansas released a study aimed at discerning whether Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP; voucher) school students in Milwaukee, who were enrolled in 8th and 9th grade in 2006, had higher graduation rates and college attainment rates than matched peers in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Voucher program advocates have used this study to tout “higher graduation rates” of students in the Milwaukee voucher program.

An updated version of the SCDP study was published in the Policy Studies Journal (PSJ) recently. This updated study resulted in a minimal change of the overall results. There were, however, important specific variables which saw changes in significance. Most importantly, the new report conclusions ignored the statistical significance of gender, parental factors, and test scores that positively affected graduation rates and college attainment, while at the same time overstated the non-significant effect of voucher schools.  The non-significant results are still being used by voucher advocates as evidence of success in the voucher school program, placing ideology over evidence in the ongoing debate over voucher schools. Parental education factors, gender, and early reading scores had greater importance in graduation and attainment than voucher school exposure.

The SCDP study authors acknowledge the studies shortcomings. First, that the ideal study involving a randomized trial is not practical. Second, the study is only able to examine exposure to the voucher schools, as students who started in an MPCP school at 8th grade may have switched to an MPS school prior to graduation. A student who switched would be counted as an MPCP graduate, and vice versa. There is no accounting for students who switched at a given point and to/from what school. Third, only 44% of the MPCP sample remained in a voucher school through grade 12. The study authors have also remained silent on the mischaracterization of their study findings by Milwaukee voucher school advocates.

It is important to underscore the most significant findings of this study that have gone unreported and omitted to advance the ideology of voucher school expansion. There is no significant effect of voucher school exposure on high school graduation rates when controlling for demographics and test scores. In addition, when factoring in parental characteristics, the effect of voucher school exposure on high school and college attainments disappear completely. What is maintained is the high significance of gender (female), math and reading scores, and parental college education. It should be made clear that based on this study, voucher schools have no impact on educational attainment when factored with demographics and parental factors. It is not accurate to conclude that voucher school students have higher graduation and attainment rates than MPS students. The data do not support that conclusion.

The full review and analysis can be viewed and downloaded at this link:

MPCP Attainment Study Analysis


06 Mar

Forward Institute Chair Interview Previews Upcoming Poverty and Education Study


Forward Institute Chair Scott Wittkopf was interviewed on “Drive Home with Sly” (93.7 FM WEKZ) on Tuesday, March 5. The interview discussed the impact of poverty on education in Wisconsin and Governor Scott Walker’s recent education budget proposal. The interview previewed some of the findings which are due to be released later this month in a full report, “Wisconsin Budgetary Policy and Poverty in Public Education, a study of the impact of school funding on educational opportunity.” 

The full interview podcast can be found here:

“Walker’s Double Whammy on Education”

Continue to follow Forward Institute to receive early notification and the full report before the public release.

19 Dec

Milwaukee and Racine DPI Report Card scores and poverty – and about those “growth scores”

In the weeks since Forward Institute released our Wisconsin Report Card Study 2012, charter school advocates and school privatization advocates have pointed to Milwaukee and Racine as examples of charter schools outperforming traditional public schools. The data for both districts show the overwhelming impact of poverty on Report Card scores. The need for public policy that effectively addresses poverty and education policies together should be the highest priority. The data also consistently demonstrates the inherent problems with tying school funding and teacher evaluation to current standard measures of educational outcome.

Figure 1 Mil-Racine graphs

Figure 2 Mil-Racine graphs

As demonstrated in the first two graphs (figure 1 is Milwaukee schools only, figure 2 is statewide schools), Milwaukee and statewide school districts show a significant correlation between the level of Economic Disadvantage and Report Card scores. The higher the level of poverty, the lower the Report Card scores. The plot also shows charter schools at the lowest income levels having lower scores than their public school counterparts – consistent with the statewide data. There is a difference in the data, however – one not addressed by charter school advocates.

In the statewide data, charter schools have a significantly higher percentage of low-income enrollment than public schools (43.6% Charters, 32.7% Public). In Milwaukee, public schools have a greater percentage of low-income enrollment than charter schools (88.5% Charters, 95% Public). (Low income is defined in this study as schools with ED enrollment higher than 48.9%. Middle income is ED enrollment of 30.4% to less than 48.9%. High income is ED enrollment less than 30.4%).

Based on the statewide outcome, we would have expected Milwaukee charter schools to perform better on the Report Cards in the lowest income group than public schools – having a lower percentage of high poverty schools. That is not the case. Figure 3 shows that in the middle and low-income groups, charter schools scored lower than public schools in Milwaukee.

Figure 3 Mil-Racine graphs

At the very least, based on the standard deviation, charter schools scored no better than public schools in Milwaukee. This would suggest that in spite of MPS traditional public schools having more schools with high ED enrollment than charter schools, they are still scoring no worse than their non-traditional charter school counterparts.

A histogram in figure 4 shows the Report Card score distribution for Milwaukee public and charter schools. The distribution is expressed as a percentage of the total to compensate for a larger number of public schools. This graph clearly illustrates that a greater percentage of charter schools had lower Report Card scores than public schools in Milwaukee.

Figure 4 Mil-Racine graphs

In the Racine Unified School District, there is insufficient data on charter schools to effectively draw a comparison between public and non-traditional charter schools.There is also currently no performance data on private voucher schools to draw any valid analysis. It is possible, however, to consider RUSD schools in comparison to the statewide data. Figure 5 shows the overall effect of poverty on Report Card scores is similar to the statewide and Milwaukee models.

Figure 5 Mil-Racine graphs

In the RUSD, 80.6% of all schools have low-income enrollment (ED enrollment >48.9%). Again, this is significantly higher than the statewide low-income enrollment (43.6% Charters, 32.7% Public), yet lower than Milwaukee schools (88.5% Charters, 95% Public). Figure 6 compares the scores stratified by Milwaukee, Racine, and statewide scores, charters and public schools. No MPS schools fall into the “high income” category. (Low income is defined in this study as schools with ED enrollment higher than 48.9%. Middle income is ED enrollment of 30.4% to less than 48.9%. High income is ED enrollment less than 30.4%).

Figure 6 Mil-Racine graphs

The high and middle-income groups show no significant difference in the Report Card scores, consistent with the statewide analysis, although the Milwaukee Charters middle-income group is close to being significantly lower than the Milwaukee public middle-income group.

Of greatest significance is the Racine low-income scores. RUSD low-income schools scored statistically equal to the statewide charter schools score – and higher than the Milwaukee Charter schools of low-income.

The data does not support the claim that Milwaukee Charter schools outperform traditional public schools. At the very least, the difference is not statistically significant. At the most, the mean Report Card scores indicate that Milwaukee Public Schools are outperforming their Charter School counterparts – particularly in the schools of highest poverty. In Racine, the highest poverty RUSD schools are performing on a par with statewide Charter Schools, and only slightly lower than statewide Public Schools.

While we all want better outcome for children of poverty, the data show that continued calls for expansion of non-traditional charter schools and private voucher programs (which have no accountability data to analyze) are nothing more than partisan politics; having demonstrated no evidence of improving educational outcome, particularly for children of poverty.

The Milwaukee and Racine data confirm a consistent link with poverty and educational outcome; and that in the highest areas of poverty, public schools are doing a better job educating children in the most challenging situations. 

A word about “Growth Scores”

There has been a significant push to compare public and charter schools based on the “Growth Score” portion of the DPI Report Card scores, as well as other school-to-school comparisons based on growth scores. DPI assessment experts have pointed out that this is an invalid comparison. Growth scores measure growth within a given school, based on measures within that school. For that reason, each school has a different baseline from previous years, making growth score comparison invalid. An illustration…

A majority of the “Growth Score” index relies on students moving toward proficient or advanced in reading and math tests, from previous years’ performance in that school. The mean growth score statewide is 61.4 for public schools, 62.4 for charter schools. As Milwaukee schools have been the focus in this study and the media, figure 7 shows the significant difference in starting points for public, charter schools, and test subject.

Figure 7 Mil-Racine graphs

Notice that charter school students in Milwaukee had a significantly higher percentage of proficient math and reading scores at the start of the measurement in 2008. With the exception of Charters Reading proficiency declining from 2008, the other three groups demonstrate a pattern of modest improvement with decline beginning in 2010 Public Math scores, and all scores declining from 2011-2012.

Further evidence of school-to-school differences can be seen at the highest and lowest growth score schools in Table 1 (RC score = Report Card score, ED enroll = Economic Disadvantage enrollment %, Reading and Math numbers expressed as percent of students scoring proficient):

Table 1 Mil-Racine

First, note the difference in starting points for each school. In both the top and lowest growth schools, charter schools have lower ED enrollment and higher test scores. While the highest growth score for a public school showed an improvement from 2008-2012 (much of it coming in 2011-2012), the other three schools have shown decline or no improvement. Much of the decline has come in the last year, 2011-2012.

While the growth score is useful in looking at growth within a school, it is certainly not an acceptable measure in comparing different schools. Moreover, the growth scores are telling us more about poverty and educational outcome…but that is for another time.

Scott Wittkopf, Chair

Forward Institute

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