Don't think money will be the solution

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THE LARGEST COMPONENT of state government spending is for K-12 education. Expect it to be the topic of overheated rhetoric for some time to come in Madison.

For the eight years Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate held undivided sway there rarely was a civil word between the education establishment and the government. From Act 10 reforms to imposed spending restraints to rapid expansion of private-school vouchers it looked a lot like open warfare.

Now, Democrat Gov. Tony Evers wants to fulfill a pledge to boost K-12 spending by $1.4 billion (a 10% increase) and legislative Republicans are having none of it.

UNDOUBTEDLY, IT'S ONE more reason Wisconsin may mimic Illinois and never get around to approving a budget this year. The legislature can gut Evers' plans and pass their own. Evers can swat that away with a veto.

In a reasonable world, that might suggest the necessity of a compromise. Let's make a deal, however, has become a filthy phrase in partisan, polarized Wisconsin.

So citizens can prepare to sit back and watch the fight. It may be entertaining - before it becomes thoroughly exasperating.

FOR THE TIME BEING we'll let it end there, and reserve specific commentary until later as the two sides stake out positions.

Instead, here's a thought: Be very wary about claims the myriad problems of public education will be fixed by showering hundreds of millions more dollars on Wisconsin districts.

The past is predictive. Every biennial state budget for as long as human memory has existed resulted in taxpayers ponying up truckloads of cash to dump into school districts. And that's just part of the picture. Districts collect property tax payments from citizens that add up to even more truckloads of cash. Meanwhile, taxpayers often are asked to sweeten the pot through multi-million dollar referendums. Beloiters remember the $70 million raised to upgrade facilities not long ago.

So, has all that money purchased better results?

THE HEART OF THE problem is not financial; it is cultural.

Public school advocates are correct when they assert - usually during arguments about whether voucher systems are fair - their institutions can't pick and choose, they must take in every kid who shows up on the schoolhouse steps. Those kids range from being the offspring of stable, affluent, highly-educated parents to the offspring of parents who have created a traumatized environment at home.

Valiant efforts to remediate damage caused outside classrooms swallows an enormous amount of the money allocated for public schools. It also adds to burdens for educators and distracts from what, in theory, ought to be the real mission: Teaching kids who are ready and want to learn.

While the argument in Madison is over how much more money to throw at public schools, it largely misses the point. Without progress on the cultural front, the same problems will keep producing the same results.

Question: When will governors and legislators have that discussion?

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