Project VOTE

Questions for Elizabeth Burmaster, Gregg Underheim

Candidates in 2005 race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction


Project VOTE asked the candidates in the 2005 election for State Superintendent of Public Instruction to answer questions about five issues facing education in Wisconsin. The candidates are Elizabeth Burmaster, who has served as State Superintendent since 2001, and state Rep. Gregg Underheim, who has been elected to the state Assembly since 1987. They will face each other in the April 5 election. The following are the Project VOTE questions and the candidates’ answers.



What do you foresee as the two major problems facing K-12 education in the next five years?  What actions might you take to address these two problems?



Our first challenge is raising the achievement of all students and closing the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students, students of color, and their peers.  The accompanying challenge is how we fund quality educational experiences over the next five years through other sources of funding than the local property tax.

As State Superintendent, I have fought for additional state aid to lessen the burden on the local property tax and for programs like the SAGE small class size reduction program, bilingual/bicultural aid, and special education aid to help local school districts close the achievement gap.  I also have secured, and will continue to secure, federal funding and private foundation grants for our state.



The most important issue facing K-12 education today is that the cost of public education is undermining support for public education.  To address this situation we must change the conversation in education to talk about ways we can make education more cost effective.  A secondary issue is the lack of vision in the Department of Public Instruction.

When I am elected, I plan to support courageous school districts that are looking at innovative ways to improve their schools.  The current administration is standing in the way of districts that are using technology effectively as a primary instructional tool.  I will do everything I can to support these pioneering districts.



What is your position on freezing property taxes and the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights?  How would you protect education if these proposals are enacted?



I support the budget plan put forward by the Governor, which provides property tax relief and protects our public schools.  The Governor’s budget reflects the values of Wisconsin citizens by making an historic investment of $850 million in public education.  This is the right direction for Wisconsin – investing in our students and their futures.  By doing its part to fund local schools, the state is taking the burden off local property taxpayers.  This will go a long way toward helping to eliminate the tension that exists between families with school-age children and those struggling to afford higher property taxes.

Every proposal that I have seen from the Legislature to strictly limit property taxes, including a so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, would damage our local schools, and I do not support these proposals.  Wisconsin school districts already operate under revenue caps that have significantly affected the extent and quality of programs offered to students.  A constitutional amendment often called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights would further damage our local schools.  The latest legislative property tax freeze proposal vetoed by the Governor would have cut education by as much as $716 million and would not have provided any guarantee in education funding.  This is not the road we want to take Wisconsin down.

We do need to do something to diminish the conflict between property taxpayers and our schools, but the way to do it is by increasing state aid to education, not by cutting education spending.



I wholeheartedly support the property tax freeze and would support the Taxpayer Bill of Rights if it were structured to allow annual increases tied to the rate of growth of personal income.  Education can flourish under these proposals if we look at new ways of doing things.  I have proposed a “W3 Program – What Works in Wisconsin.” Under this program, the DPI will travel to low spending / high-performing districts to see what they are doing correctly.  We can have great schools without an outrageous tax burden.



What can you do in the position of superintendent of public instruction to have the greatest impact on education in Wisconsin?



I believe that public schools are the cornerstone of our democracy, and that our investment in our schools is an investment in the future of our community, state, and country.  I have been honored to serve the citizens of Wisconsin as State Superintendent, and I can bring my leadership, experience, and passion to realizing a quality education for every Wisconsin child.



The Superintendent has a bully pulpit to be an advocate for education in this State.  I will use that position and power to articulate a new vision for public education.  Vision is currently lacking at the DPI.  The greatest impact can be had by allowing local school districts to try new things and supporting their efforts.  Real change in education is going to come from innovative and courageous superintendents and school boards.  The DPI must provide the environment for these to flourish.



What new or innovative programs or services do you support that could improve public schools in Wisconsin?



Raising the achievement of all students and closing the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students, students of color, and their peers are my top priorities.  Four-year-old kindergarten, SAGE, and strong programs in career and technical education are strategies to close the gap.  One of the most effective learning strategies to actively engage students is service-learning, a methodology that combines classroom learning with applications in the community. Through service-learning experiences, a win-win situation occurs with both students and communities benefiting.



I support programs that use technology as a primary instructional tool.  These include “virtual schools” which are under attack by the current superintendent.  These programs have proven to help lagging and excelling students.  They are a cost-effective way to improve our public schools and should be supported.



As you travel through the state, what makes you the most optimistic/pessimistic about the future of Wisconsin’s schools?



In the past four years, I have visited over 180 Wisconsin schools.  I have seen schools doing marvelous work in teaching English to immigrant children; parents and teachers supporting children with special education needs; and high school students and teachers conducting chemistry experiments in Advanced Placement classes.  I sat with the Milwaukee Alliance for Attendance group as they wrote an action plan to reduce truancy, and I stood with eight rural communities and schools recognized for creative approaches to keep their communities alive and vital.  There are many, many other wonderful stories about Wisconsin schools and communities. I am optimistic about Wisconsin schools because I have seen firsthand the success of our students when they are supported by parents and their communities.



I am most optimistic about the wealth of potential we have in this State.  I have met many dedicated parents who want the best possible education for their children.  But I am pessimistic when I see the current Superintendent blocking innovative programs and refusing to look at new ways to do things.  If we do not solve the cost equation, we are going to lose more public support for public education.