Senate Education Chair Olsen Interview

In an interview with The Wheeler Report, Sen. Luther Olsen, Chair of the Senate Education committee, talks about education changes and the future of K-12.


When asked what his accomplishments have been as chair of Senate Education, Olsen said:

We got the teacher effectiveness passed.  We worked on the report card for school accountability.  I think when the Governor cut money out of K-12 education in his budget, I was a force to get it back in over the past few budgets.  I worked for an increase.  In the first year of this budget, it wasn’t an increase, but it wasn’t a deduction.  I think the one thing right now that has the biggest impact is the teacher evaluation system because research shows that the effectiveness of the teacher is more important than class size, years of experience, or credits. The only way to have effective teachers is if you have a way to look at them and see how they are working, then give them professional development in areas they need improvement on.


Olsen was then asked what some of the challenges have been as chair of Education.

It seems like there are a lot of people who want to micro-manage schools. There have been legislative proposals that would require schools to do things that should be left to local control. We have declining enrollment schools and we have small schools that are having trouble providing curriculum and opportunities to kids because they are so small.  We haven’t figured out a way to provide for small essential schools.


Olsen was asked what the future of K-12 education will be for Wisconsin.

It’s going to be tough because one of the first things I see is that schools are going to have a hard time finding teachers. It used to be there were all kinds of applications for job openings.  There was a difficulty in the past finding specialists, and now they can’t find them. I think schools are going to face a critical shortage, in our state and across the country, in teachers. One of our comprehensive colleges, that has a teacher training program, said their enrollment is down approximately 70%.  Statewide enrollment in teaching programs is down about 25%. Schools are having problems finding teachers.  If you don’t have a great pool of teachers, you wind up not having the quality that the state is used to. Education is facing what other industries have faced for a while now.  It is hard to get qualified people in these positions.  The baby boomers are retiring and need to be replaced. The next generation looks at teaching and aren’t interested.  I think that is one of the big challenges.


I’m on a committee for NCSL and we’re coming out with a paper later this fall.  The paper looks at what the highest performing countries are doing and why their students are doing well.  One of the things they (other countries) do is have high standards to be a teacher.  They pay teachers well, and they teach large class sizes.  I am concerned that the road it looks like we are going down is low standards, low pay and low class sizes. In Germany, half of the students in teacher training programs don’t complete the program because it is so rigorous. I think we have some challenges in that way.  There are also good things happening.  A local superintendent was telling me that they started a new math program in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. He said they tested them at the beginning of the year, bought them chrome books and they instituted a new math program, and then tested them again at the end of the year.  Those kids, on average, learned 2.4 years’ worth of material in one year. That’s just the first year.  That will push, at the high school level, the math department to change their curriculum because students coming into high school will have greater advanced math skills.  In the future, their goal would be that by graduation 80% of the students would take Math IV, which is the highest math they currently offer. There are good programs out there, but there are also difficulties.


When asked about recent trends in referendums and the future of referendums, Olsen said:

As the State has not kept pace with the increase cost in educating students, schools have had to go to the taxpayers saying they need revenue for operating expenditures.  To me that system worked well when we were funding schools sum sufficient.  Now, we are sum certain.  CPI goes up 2% per year.  This year, we gave no increase and next year we gave about $100, which is about 1%.  As costs continue to rise, schools have to figure out how to educate kids more efficiently.  Schools are also having to do more. We have always had special education in schools, but now schools are having to deal with mental health issues. There are more students coming to school with mental health issues, and schools are spending increased time and money working with these students. They even work with organizations within our local communities to help these kids receive the help that they may need. This is important because if you can’t reach them, you can’t teach them.


Olsen was asked about the future of vouchers in Wisconsin.

I was always concerned about vouchers because I didn’t think GPR could fund two school systems: public and private. In this last budget, vouchers got totally shifted to the property taxpayers in the state.  Statewide vouchers are all paid for by property taxes and there is no GPR that goes into it. Years ago people that sent their kids to private school paid for that type of education. This generation says ‘I pay taxes. I want to send my kids to those schools, and I want my tax money to go to educating my kids in a private school.’ Gov. Walker, when he ran for re-election, said he was going to keep property taxes down and expand school choice and he won.


Accountability wasn’t passed as a single package during the past session, but parts were put in the budget or passed as separate legislation.  Olsen was asked if accountability could be done as one package, or if it has to be done in parts.


The choice schools are going to be in the report card.  One of the issues was how many tests and what kind of tests would students be required to take.  The difference between the two houses was the use of sanctions against schools. I have said for a long time that the only people in a school that were ever held accountable were the kids.  Now, because of the report cards, the teachers, the principles, the administration and the school board are held accountable for student performance. Now we have a report card for the whole system.  One of the other issues that I see is that we keep changing the tests that we administer to students.  When you keep changing tests, it is hard to see a trend.  If you really want accountability, you have to look at not just one year, but the trend in school performance. Another challenge that schools face is that the population in Wisconsin is changing. Now, we have an increased population of English as a Second Language learners and more students on free and reduced lunches, and those students come to school with greater challenges than our schools have faced previously.


Olsen was asked about the future of education funding in Wisconsin.

The only way to make wholesale changes to the funding formula is to increase the amount of money available in order to hold school districts harmless. You can’t have a funding system that you don’t continually put more money into.  As I look at other funding systems in the country, ours is really complicated.  If you are a high property value district, you get very little or no state aid.  In some districts, if you increase your spending too much, you can lose state aid. As I look at things, the state’s responsibility is to make sure that there is enough funding for kids to receive the opportunity for an adequate education. There needs to be enough funding to do that. Our job is to make sure all kids get an adequate education.


Final thoughts.

I think we have been very fortunate in our state because we have dedicated teachers and people who really care about education and kids.  Things are also changing in Wisconsin.  We now have kids who come to school with more issues.  Now we have to teach them English before we can teach them. There are more challenges. We have disparaged teaching in this state and now young people are choosing to do something else.  Even those children of teachers are doing something else.  We have always been a state that valued education, but I think people are no longer valuing education the way they need to. In the future, this will have a detrimental effect on our workforce.  The workforce of the future needs to be more educated. We have a lot of jobs that aren’t being filled because they lack the skills.  The only way to fill those jobs is through education.


Education is changing.  It used to be that teachers stood in front of a classroom and talked to the middle.  There were faster learners and those that struggled, but you always took care of the middle.  It seems like the middle is shrinking.  The answer is individualized instruction.  The goal is to make sure that every student comprehends the material before the move on. Rather than just seat time and them moving the student forward at whatever level, now we should be looking at whatever time it takes so that everyone knows the material.  Once students are behind, at the early stages, it is very difficult for them to catch up to their peers.