As most young people know, New Year’s Day is Sept. 1

CAPITOL NEWSLETTER
Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

The “new year” is about to arrive in Wisconsin as public schools ready for the early September opening.

Some will disagree that September is the “new year,” preferring to mark it in January. But to hundreds of thousands of young people, their parents, grandparents and thousands of teachers, the start of school is the “new year.”

As the opening neared, more Wisconsin school districts were having trouble filling teaching vacancies, especially in math, science and special education. Wisconsin is not alone in struggling to fill openings. It’s a national trend.

The situation isn’t a surprise. Rural school districts talked about the issue during the last legislative session and urban districts chimed in that they, too, saw problems ahead. Colleges that train teachers said fewer undergraduates were opting for education and careers in the teaching profession.

Part of the situation may be the expectations of families. It’s natural for parents and grandparents to think, like residents of the mythical Lake Woebegone , that their children and grandchildren are all above average. If their betterthan average children struggle in school, many want to blame the teachers and principals.

That sort of attitude probably has helped promote the concept of the taxpayers financing voucher and charter schools that draw money away from the traditional public schools. Debate will continue to rage over whether these alternatives will produce bettereducated children.

The State Capitol is fertile ground for ideas on how to change education. Twenty years ago, then-Gov. Tommy Thompson floated the ideas of adding another week of instruction to the school year for elementary and secondary public schools. It could better educate young people, he suggested.

Thompson quickly found that cherished summer vacations and schedules would prevail. The tourism industry didn’t want to shave off a week of family vacations. Taxpayer watchdog groups reminded him that it would drive up costs. Pay for hourly workers – cooks, maintenance workers, janitorial staff and bus drivers – would need to be considered.

Wisconsin law establishes that public schools, including higher education, start after Sept. 1. The tourism industry promoted that law, indicating it didn’t want to lose its college-age summertime workers. It initially sought a start after Labor Day.

The problem of finding topnotch, trained teachers seems to have sociological and economic roots. Young women are seeing job opportunities across the work spectrum. Private employers also are seeking to diversify their ranks with minorities.

Pay opportunities probably are brighter in the private sector. The state budget limits the amount of money school districts can raise through the property tax and that affects teacher salaries. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

The $250-million reduction in the University of Wisconsin System budget is proof that the future is not bright for education funding in Wisconsin. Indeed, public schools may not be near the head of the line when it comes to fiscal decisions.

Two years ago, the Legislature approved a $30-million personal income-tax break for families who send their children to private elementary and secondary schools. Legislative proponents said it was a way to help parochial schools survive.

Never mind any fiscal gloom. The “new year” comes next week with anticipation and promise for Wisconsin families. It’s far more exciting than any Jan. 1.


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