I'm from Wisconsin and I'm here to help

Michael Brickman

This is the first post by Michael Brickman, Fordham’s new national policy director. Until last week he was Governor Scott Walker’s education policy advisor. Follow him on Twitter at @BrickM or email him at mbrickman@edexcellence.net.

Michael Brickman

Growing up, I was lucky to have some great teachers in terrific schools (both public and private). But along the way I learned that others were not as lucky. Many kids were stuck in mediocre or dire schools that had little chance of preparing them for later success in education or in life. Even as some of these schools failed to prepare graduates for the jobs of the moment, the economy itself was moving under their feet.

Today our economic institutions are undergoing major shifts due to technology, demographics, and other factors; and our educational system will need to respond accordingly. Ensuring that students both learn to use technology—and use technology to learn—will be vital. Other reforms, like coupling high standards with parental choice, will help transform our mostly outdated one-size-fits-all system into one that is better suited for students and educators alike. Yet change will not come quickly or easily without both the realization that tomorrow’s economy will leave ever more undereducated Americans behind and the drive to make the necessary change.

Standing still is not a good option for social or economic progress. Wisconsin’s manufacturing-heavy economy had been more than sufficient for decades to drive growth and progress but, in the 1980s and 1990s, that was beginning to change. Under Gov. Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin began to move in the right direction by creating the nation's first school voucher program and was an early adopter of charter schools. But we also had results to back up our reforms, including some of the best test scores in the country. Over the course of the next couple of decades, however, reform stalled to a near halt. While other states focused on reforms related to reading, educator effectiveness, high school redesign, and more, Wisconsin became locked in a comfortable state of apathy. Unsurprisingly, student achievement in the Badger State saw virtually no growth while several states, including Florida and Massachusetts, sprinted ahead. In fact, Wisconsin fared worse than nearly every other state, dropping to the middle of the pack at best.

Gov. Scott Walker ran on a strongly pro-reform message and sought to return Wisconsin to its prior place as a leader in both reform and results. Through two biennial budgets and the better part of his first three years in office, I had the privilege of seeing these efforts firsthand.

Our collective bargaining reforms and the subsequent protests and recalls dominated the headlines, but beyond the media spotlight, we were effecting a number of other important policy changes—many of them bipartisan.

Even during the noisiest of union protests, we worked with elected officials from both parties to focus on third grade reading; and we worked with the teachers' unions themselves to create a teacher and principal evaluation system. We followed up those efforts with a school report card initiative that again engaged diverse stakeholders. The state also moved away from insultingly poor academic standards and tied cut scores on its existing state tests to the NAEP—even while transitioning to the Smarter Balanced tests.

On school choice, we expanded the school voucher program statewide, created a course options program for all K–12 students, expanded charter and virtual schools, created a private--school tuition-tax deduction, and broadened open enrollment within public education.

We also enacted initiatives to support college and career readiness, from a two-year tuition freeze to the UW Flex Option program, and more.

To be sure, these initiatives will require significant follow-through and their impact will not be fully felt for some time. Yet from systemic reform to school choice to accountability there are many lessons, both positive and negative, that other reformers can draw from Wisconsin’s experience. Among them:

  1. When taking the long view, it’s only a matter of time before the things that “will never change” do just that. Yet reforms like Act 10 in Wisconsin require the type of political courage that Governor Walker possesses and, even then, nothing is remotely guaranteed. In general, the immovable objects require constant pushing and should always be included in policy deliberations. After a while, the persistence can pay off. So…
  2. Communication is key. The public really does have both the capacity and desire to learn about complex policy issues. That said, it requires conveying the urgency of the situation and the necessity of the goal in order to explain the things that we education reformers spend every day working on to people who might not be quite as obsessed. Because of this…
  3. Facts matter. Plenty of “the-sky-is-falling” rhetoric was used to describe Gov. Walker’s reforms. Much of it was ineffective, but that can always change when opponents offer numbers to back up their claims—no matter how dubious the conclusions. Just because there are numbers and graphs doesn’t mean something is fact. Looking at the raw data and primary sources is usually worth it in the end. But not everything has to be “us versus them”…
  4. Humility is necessary. Plenty of policies make sense on paper but fail in practice. This is always more likely if lesson #2 is ignored. In other words, don’t overpromise, but don’t under-implement; real change takes time and is gradual but it will never happen if you settle for just changing a policy to check it off your list. Which means…
  5. Working with people you disagree with. Talking with people you think are wrong 90 percent of the time will still frequently produce some great results. Our—albeit infrequent—work with the unions in Wisconsin was a good example, but there were other times when we could have reached out to them and others. This sometimes can be trickier to make work in reality, but education may be the last possible bastion of bipartisanship in our contentious political landscape, so it’s certainly worth trying.