|While their initial intent to force school districts to become more efficient and reevaluate what they were doing and how they were doing it may have had a positive impact on districts, revenue caps are now creating financial hardships -- some school districts have consolidated and others may be edging close to bankruptcy -- and causing the vast majority of school districts to implement budget cutting measures that may have a negative impact on their basic educational mission.
Art Rainwater, the superintendent of Madison public schools, has been a superintendent or assistant superintendent for the district since the revenue caps were put in place. And if the current financing structure for Wisconsin's public schools stays in place for the long-term, Rainwater feels that it will have a detrimental impact on the state as a whole for a long time to come.
"One of the things that make Wisconsin special has been the whole education system," Rainwater said during an interview with The Capital City Hues. "The k-12 system, the state system in Wisconsin, has been one the 2-3 best state education systems in the country. We have a world-class research university. Not only is it a world-class research university in a broad range of areas, but it is also a world leader -- if not the world leader -- in where it looks like the future of our economy is going to be. What a tremendous asset and it has a great k-12 system feeding into it. As you look at what has been the tendency over the last few years for our state government, which is to dismantle that system, and it seems dismantling that system without really thinking long-term about what impact it will have on us as a state and our ability to generate the kind of economy that supports our citizens the way it has in the past."
As the pace of technological development continues to accelerate, Rainwater questions whether or not Wisconsin's public education system is going to be capable of giving Wisconsin's children the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in that environment. "Think about the fact that our kids, the kids who go into kindergarten next year, will be in the workforce in the year 2060," Rainwater said. "And to give you a perspective on how fast technological change is moving, my wife and I take a cruise each summer. Eight years ago, if my staff wanted to contact me, they had to call me on a satellite phone. It was like $20 per minute or something like that. There was no e-mail on the ship. And my staff has only called me twice. But last summer, I am sitting on the deck of a cruise ship in St. Petersburg, Russia, talking to my staff on a cell phone. And they just dialed my cell phone number from here. I talked to them live from St. Petersburg. Now there is e-mail available 24 hours a day, seven days per week at sea. So if you think about just the change in communications in that short length of time, if you think about what we have learned in what we do well here, which is the biomedical field and stem cell research, when you think about how rapidly that is moving, we can't even envision what our kids are going to need to know when they get out there. So as we as a state don't give our children the kind of mega-skills that we are talking about -- the ability to learn, the ability to do critical thinking -- we're handicapping our ability to deal with that future in 2060. It's just so difficult to get people to look beyond today's crisis issue to realize that we are creating a bigger crisis down the line."
And outside of the importance of strong schools to the economic vitality of the state, Rainwater feels that a weak public education system could have negative consequences for our democratic traditions. "When our Founding Fathers began this country, many of them talked about the need for an educated populace, not economically because we were a very agrarian society, not for economic development, but for citizen development," Rainwater emphasized. "In order to have a democracy, in order to have the freedom that we have, our people needed to understand what that meant and be able to make decisions. Our government is one that places decisions in the hands of the people and their elected representatives. For me anyway, one of the reasons I believe so strongly in what public education means is that preparation of people for citizenship and participating in the political life of our country and its direction is at least as important as the economic development aspects and workforce development aspects of what we do in public education."
It could end up being a strange new world out there for generations to come. A few dollars saved today could end up costing Madison and the state of Wisconsin its quality of life if its general populace is ill-prepared to meet the challenges of the technological world of tomorrow.
| An interview with Art Rainwater
Projecting the future
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 2 of 2
|At the heart of the controversy over the recently passed 2007-2008 Madison Metropolitan School District budget are the state-imposed revenue caps that were instituted in the early 1990s as a property tax relief measure.|