Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials
Wisconsin State Journal, Sept. 17
Republicans backtrack on commitment to clean state budget
Back in April, we congratulated the Legislature’s finance committee for responsibly purging all non-fiscal policy from Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget request.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and other members of the Republican-controlled committee removed 83 items from the state’s two-year spending plan that, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, had little or nothing to do with spending state money.
Nygren and Darling also had professed a desire to keep policy out of the budget by avoiding last-minute, surprise additions to the state spending plan as their committee wrapped up its work. That way, policy lacking enough support to clear the Legislature as individual bills couldn’t be slipped into the $76 billion budget late in the process, dodging scrutiny and accountability.
Well, so much for that.
The budget now heading to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk is stuffed with dozens of non-fiscal policy decisions — some of them controversial and confusing — without public hearings or proper vetting. Even the sponsors of some of the items remain anonymous.
It’s a shameful reversal after months of GOP lawmakers seemingly respecting good government principles in pursuit of a clean budget.
The list of non-fiscal policy items in the budget totaled 69 when the 2017-19 state spending plan cleared the Joint Finance Committee this month. And last week the Legislature sent the budget to the governor’s desk.
Among the non-fiscal items the finance committee added to the budget are:
— Looser qualifications for UW System leaders.
— A mandate for UW to report and reward the time professors spend teaching.
— Looser requirements for K-12 teacher certification.
— Permission for overweight trucks to operate on certain highways.
— A property tax exemption for land belonging to a Madison church, and for bible camps.
— A prohibition on local communities condemning property for new or expanded sidewalks.
— Exemptions for primitive cabins from electrical wiring and plumbing codes.
The list goes on and on.
Whether these provisions are good ideas or not isn’t the point. They simply don’t belong in the state’s spending plan, and they should have to stand on their own merits to become law. Putting non-fiscal proposals in the budget is a recipe for bad government because it allows measures to advance that otherwise wouldn’t.
One of the few lawmakers who has consistently opposed policy in the budget is Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, who threatened to vote against his party’s budget because of all the policy it contained. Unfortunately, he caved on that demand.
Cowles now says he hopes the governor will remove policy with line-item vetoes. But that appears to be wishful thinking, given the governor had loaded up his original budget request with a long list of policy goodies.
The abandonment of a clean budget should trouble all citizens who want state decisions to reflect the will of the people, and to withstand scrutiny and transparency before becoming law.
The Janesville Gazette, Sept. 17
Don’t get too worked up over ACT scores
Not that parents and educators should dismiss student ACT scores, but it’s important to remember the scores are only one measure of ability and arguably not a very good one.
Wisconsin began putting more emphasis on ACT tests two years ago, joining several other states in requiring all high school graduates to take the college readiness exam. But don’t expect Janesville Superintendent Steve Pophal to gush about improved scores or get too down about a drop. As he stated during a Gazette Editorial Board meeting in July and again during an interview last week, Pophal is not a big fan of standardized testing.
At the same time, he realizes bureaucrats and lawmakers may not share his view, and to the extent that college admissions continue to require students submit their ACT scores, standardized testing will remain relevant.
But Pophal brings to the district refreshing skepticism toward standardized testing, and he feels student time would be better spent preparing for post-secondary education or technical careers than on honing test-taking abilities.
Even the news release issued by the school district regarding Janesville’s latest ACT test scores— a slight rise from the year before— seemed aimed at shifting the conversation to another topic. The release lists the districts’ scores but highlights the district’s goals, or “promises,” as Pophal calls them.
Perhaps the most ambitious promise is to have 90 percent of graduates completing one of three types of classes:
Advanced placement classes to prepare for the rigors of college academics.
Dual enrollment courses similar to AP classwork, except students attend college as part of their high school experience.
Industry credential courses giving students a head start on careers by putting students on track to receive certifications required to enter a particular field.
While an adequate ACT score is necessary to enroll in many colleges, not every high school graduate goes to college. Furthermore, some colleges have started giving less weight to ACT scores, acknowledging their shortcomings as predictors of college success.
In terms of measuring whether the Janesville School District is properly preparing college-bound students, a more important metric, we believe, is the percentage of high school graduates who must take remedial courses at college.
Students assigned to remedial math and English coursework are more likely to drop out or take longer to graduate because colleges don’t award credits for remedial work.
Janesville has a problem in this area, particularly mathematics, as the latest figures demonstrate. In 2015, 16 percent of Craig High School graduates who attended UW system colleges or universities were required to take remedial math. Parker High School fared worse with 36 percent of its graduates needing to take remedial math.
Lowering these percentages through more rigorous, better-designed classroom instruction would prove more meaningful than increasing students’ ACT scores. But make no mistake: A decline in the number of graduates taking remedial classes in college would likely accompany higher ACT scores_it’s just a question of emphasis. Does the district want to deliver real-world preparation or testing-related skills?
Pophal seems aware of the system gaming inherent to standardized testing. There are techniques and strategies test takers can employ that have little or no relation to real-life outcomes. In other words, a perfect ACT score of 36 does not necessarily yield the next Henry Ford or Bill Gates. Standardized-testing smarts aren’t real-world smarts.
As the next crop of Janesville graduates prepares to take the ACT test, encourage them to do well. Just don’t make it seem like their futures depend on acing it.
Leader-Telegram, Sept. 14
Difficult call for Barca on Foxconn deal
Former U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, in a letter to the editor in The Capital Times, said “No one in Wisconsin Democratic politics has demonstrated more guts and courage than Peter Barca.”
“I salute Peter for his lifelong willingness to make the hard and sometimes conflicting choices that public life often requires,” Obey wrote. “If Congress and the Legislature had more leaders like Peter Barca, politics would not be in the state of disrepair we see today.”
Though he’ll remain in the state Legislature, Barca, D-Kenosha, is stepping down as Assembly Minority Leader on Sept. 30 after more than six years in the post. Though several reasons for the move have been put forth, it’s hard to believe his vote on the Foxconn incentive package didn’t play a role.
Barca, who has served in Congress, was one of only a few Democrats to vote for a $3 billion incentive package for Foxconn’s proposed flat-screen plant; sites in both Kenosha and Racine counties have been considered for the project. The state Senate passed the measure Tuesday. It returns to the Assembly for a second vote today before advancing to Gov. Scott Walker.
“Peter is a rare breed in Madison, a politician who can disagree and advocate for his position without being disagreeable,” said a statement from Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine. “He understands how to agree to disagree. It is unfortunate ... that Assembly Democrats are seeking a new leader because he exercised those principles by voting for the Foxconn legislation.”
In the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up department, Gordon Hintz has announced he’ll run for Barca’s seat to lead Democrats in the Assembly. Hintz is an air guitar virtuoso and state legislator from Oshkosh. He appeared as his alter ego, Krye Tuff, in the 2006 documentary “Air Guitar Nation” and once took second in a national air-guitar contest.
Nothing against Hintz, a passionate legislator who may very well excel at leading Assembly Democrats, but it’s important to note that state legislators primarily represent their constituents, not a party or even a state. Barca likely felt he was doing just that.
“When my father immigrated to the United States and settled our family in Kenosha, it was a factory job that gave him the chance to eventually buy his own business and achieve the American dream,” Barca said in a statement. “But as time passed, manufacturing left my hometown and communities all across Wisconsin. If we can create new good-paying, family-supporting jobs in a high-tech industry, it could give future generations the same opportunities my family had.
“At the end of the day, all politics is local. As I traveled my district over the last few weeks, I spoke with countless constituents and heard from nearly every major local leader in Kenosha and Racine that they supported this plan. That’s why I voted yes.”
There remain legitimate concerns about the Foxconn deal. Will it follow through on its plans? Will the environment be protected? Will Wisconsinites, as opposed to Illinoisans, make up a bulk of the workers? Will automation limit the project’s number of jobs?
But there are a bevy of potential positives should the project advance. Foxconn has proposed a $10 billion investment in southeastern Wisconsin that could eventually yield more than 10,000 jobs.
State Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, a candidate for governor, has been outspoken in his opposition to the deal. We’ll never know whether that position would have changed if the company were bringing the project to the Chippewa Valley, but we can assume the decision wouldn’t have been an easy one.