Campaign Finance Reform: For the Sake of Our Kids

by Mike McCabe, Communications Director

October 1999

If the six years I spent lobbying on school issues at the State Capitol convinced me of anything, it’s that there is one issue that needs to be at the top of the agenda for education advocates. 

Class size? 

Nope. 

School choice? 

Hardly. 

Revenue cap relief? 

Guess again. 

Special education aid? School technology? Student assessment? Teacher training and licensing? 

None of the above. 

Campaign finance reform. 

Say what? 

Yep, it’s campaign finance reform hands down. 

Without it, I can’t see how children will come first. Or second, third, fourth or even fifth. Kids don’t make campaign donations. Parents don’t either, to speak of. Same with school board members. A few will write a check here or there, but it’s nickels and dimes compared to what’s being given by the pros who are playing for keeps. 

That means when issues affecting schools and schoolchildren are being debated, children’s advocates can do no more than argue the merits of their position, while other interests lubricate the decision making machinery with generous contributions. 

In today’s pay-to-play environment, those who try to work the system on behalf of kids are swimming upstream. Any realistic hope that children’s interests will be front and center is being washed away by the torrent of special interest money that is polluting our elections and poisoning public policy making in our state. 

A case in point is the school start date debate. School officials have given legislators a long list of reasons why it is neither practical nor educationally sound to require all schools in Wisconsin to start after Labor Day. Yet the idea still lives. 

Educators ask why it’s necessary to mandate a post-Labor Day start to the school year when there’s nothing in the current law that prevents a school district from doing so now. They point out that some school districts already start after September 1 because that’s what the communities they serve want. So why impose a one-size-fits-all schedule on school districts across the state when most communities aren't clamoring for a later start to the school year and those that are can have it? Good question, but the lack of a good answer hasn't killed the proposal. 

School people also point out that a mandatory after-Labor Day start date could throw a monkey wrench into experiments with year-round schooling. American children spend far fewer days in school over the course of a year than their counterparts in countries like Japan and Germany, but any attempts to remedy this deficit could be hamstrung by a school start date mandate. Even that very valid point hasn't driven a stake through the heart of the uniform school start scheme. 

Its resilience clearly has nothing to do with the strength of the case for uniformity. Advocates of the start date mandate lean heavily on the argument that requiring schools to start after Labor Day would give families more time together. That rationale is particularly lame when you consider that the start date proposal does nothing to change the requirement that students receive at least 180 days of instruction. So families wouldn’t get a single additional day to bond; the extra days off at the beginning of the year would have to be made up at the end. 

The real reason this cat’s got way more than nine lives is money. Plain and simple, the tourism industry wants school to start after Labor Day so more money can be made over Labor Day weekend. And the industry has poured huge sums of money into the political process to get its way. 

Tourism interests contributed at least $450,000 to candidates for state office in the last election. And a mere six months after the 1998 election cycle ended, they had already given at least $50,000 more toward the 2000 election. 

On top of the donations, groups with an interest in a mandatory school start date spent more than $1.5 million lobbying lawmakers in the last legislative session and are on a pace to far surpass that figure this session. 

Playing in a money-is-speech arena like the State Capitol, that kind of cash can make even the most limp arguments hold sway. 

Unless we fix our broken campaign finance system, I'm afraid the concerns of elected school board members will increasingly fall on deaf ears. The voices of concerned parents will more often than not be ignored. Unless we clean up this mess, kids can’t win over the long haul.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director
2000-2014

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