Thursday, February 12, 2015

Scott Walker Calls for Major Changes at University of Wisconsin System

More than 35,000 public employees would be removed from state government rolls if Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal stays intact through the legislative process.

Walker’s 2015-17 budget proposal, which was introduced Tuesday, makes major changes to the operation of the state’s University of Wisconsin System. The second-term governor’s plan would split off the system into its own public entity.

By creating a separate authority for the University of Wisconsin System, it would no longer be under the direct management of the state.

According to Walker, University of Wisconsin System supporters have been asking for more autonomy for years, claiming it would help cut costs and better serve students. The Republican governor’s plan also includes a $150 million funding cut in each year of his biennial budget in exchange for the greater autonomy.

The annual reduction is equivalent to a 2.5 percent cut in total public funding. Opponents of Walker’s reform have claimed aid is being cut by 13 percent. That, however, only takes into consideration general fund spending from the state.

The 13 percent figure ignores nearly $5 billion in funding the University of Wisconsin System receives in federal, segregated and program revenues.

At a Wednesday stop in Stevens Point, Walker called the plan an “Act 10 for the UW System”—referring to his 2011 collective-bargaining reforms that have saved the state $3 billion to date.

“What I mean by that is that we actually give them reforms. For years, supporters of the UW System have said at campus after campus that if you got us out from under the thumb of the state government bureaucracy that they could do more to save money and put it back into the classroom to be more effective,” the governor said. “I believe our authority will do just that.”

The proposal would also extend a tuition freeze that was included in the last budget, keeping tuition at the same level for a total of four years.

University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross hopes the final budget will include more state funding.

“This is a serious cut that will force each institution and campus within the UW System to make difficult decisions about its workforce and programming,” Cross said. “We are hopeful that we will be able to work with our partners in the legislature to mitigate and reduce this cut in the coming months.”

Many others in the state agree with Walker that funding should be cut.

During the 2013-15 budget process, legislators discovered the UW System had more than $600 million in surplus that was not clearly accounted for. This so-called “slush fund” led to the first two-year tuition freeze and eventually the University of Wisconsin System president at the time, Kevin Reilly, resigned.

Since then, the system has reduced reserves down to $175 million and has implemented policies to increase transparency.

Conservatives, including the governor, have also embraced the idea that professors should teach just one more class per semester to cut costs. According to a report from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, faculty taught two courses and had on average just 6.3 hours of direct contact with students per week in 2012.

And, University of Wisconsin at Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank hinted in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal that number might get even lower.

According to WSJ, “[Blank] said that 15% of her professors last year received outside job offers, and as chancellor, she bids against those offers in part by cutting the course loads of researchers so they will stay.”

The state Legislature will take up Walker’s budget in the coming months and a final bill is expected to be signed by the governor in June.


Connecticut Schools Need More Freedom, Not Less

Freedom of education and school choice are shaping up to be major issues this year, with half a dozen states already introducing legislation to repeal Common Core education standards, and a number of federal bills designed to restore local control of school systems.

But there is one state that apparently didn’t get the memo. An influential government commission in Connecticut is mulling over new restrictions on a parent’s right to homeschool their children.

The controversy dates back to the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School by the emotionally disturbed Adam Lanza. Lanza had been placed in “homebound status” – a technical distinction from homeschooling in that the school still bore some responsibility for his education – by the school district in the eighth grade, before returning to school in the 10th.

About a year after that, he was allowed to graduate at the end of his junior year. It would be several more years before the 20-year-old Lanza returned to Sandy Hook to shoot 26 people.

Tragedies like this are horrific beyond belief, and it is natural to try to make some sense out of an apparently senseless act. It is natural to want to take active measures to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. But the analysis of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, and its recommendations, are badly flawed, and intrude unnecessarily into parental and educational freedom.

While a massive backlash has caused the commission to back down from its previous attempts to outright prevent parents from homeschooling their children with mental or emotional difficulties, the commission still wants to require such children to be regularly supervised by public school authorities. They are also expanding their recommendation to require that parents who withdraw their children from school continue to adhere to an “individualized education plan.” In other words, you can’t control the content and curriculum of your own child’s education.

The problems with this plan are many.

First of all, there’s the attempt to draw a causal connection between a teenager being removed from the supervision of school counselors for one year (ninth grade) and a crazed shooting spree half a decade later. Using vague correlations as grounds for ludicrous assumptions about causation is what government does best, but this is a stretch even by their admittedly low standards.

Second, by what authority do public school officials claim to be remotely effective at preventing violent behavior? Given the 43 school shootings that we observed in 2014 alone, it’s a little strange to claim that public schooling is some sort of cure for mental illness.

The best recipe for a healthy, well-functioning adult is not to lock children in windowless rooms and force them to do math problems for 13 years. The idea that every child is different, and that therefore diversity, rather than conformity, of upbringing might yield better outcomes is apparently still too radical.

Parents often have a very good reason for wanting to withdraw their children from public schools. Whether they are dissatisfied with the curriculum, bullying, dissonance with personal values, or the need to deal with behavioral problems, parents should not have to justify themselves to government for wanting what’s best for their kids.

The purpose of public schools is supposedly to provide opportunity to those who would otherwise not have it, not to dictate the terms of childhood to America’s youth. Contrary to the belief of some progressives, children are not the property of the state, and public school officials have no business imposing themselves on families that have decided to opt out of the system.

The desire to prevent future tragedies is sincere, but to help children with special circumstances, we should be giving them more flexibility in education, not less.


The death of handwriting? Schools are ditching pens and papers for computers - but could it harm your child's development?

From next year, children in Finland will not be compulsorily taught cursive handwriting. Instead of learning this skill, schools will be given the choice to teach keyboard typing in its place.

The country's education board said the change reflects how typing skills are now more relevant than handwriting, but experts claim the move could damage a child's brain development.

The changes don't officially come into force until the start of next year's autumn term.

Minna Harmanen from the National Board of Education told Savon Sanomat that 'fluent typing skills are an important national competence'.

It follows changes made to the Common Core Standards Initiative in the US, in September 2013, in which the US similarly removed cursive handwriting as a compulsory skill.

A predominant criticism is that, while handwriting is important, cursive handwriting is no longer deemed necessary.

'Most [people] would agree that everyone should at least be able to pick up a pen or pencil and craft a message that others can read,' said Misty Adoniou, senior lecturer in language, literacy and TESL at University of Canberra.  'But beyond legibility, does it matter how you form your letters when you hand write?'

She continued there is research linking fluent handwriting with better written compositions, 'but the key isn’t the quality, form or style of the handwriting, but rather the automaticity of the handwriting.'

Automaticity is the theory that the less a person has to concentrate on forming their letters correctly, the more brain space they can devote to getting their message right.

However, writing automaticity is just as easily achieved on a keyboard, and Ms Adoniou said it's more time efficient to teach a child to type than it is to teach them a particular handwriting style.


In a recent study from Indiana University, researchers conducted brain scans on five-year-olds before and after receiving different letter-learning tasks.

In children who practiced writing letters by hand, the neural activity was more enhanced and 'adult-like' than in those who had simply looked at letters.

And, the brain’s so-called 'reading circuit' - a region of linked connections that become active when reading - was activated during handwriting, but not during typing.

Reports have also found that by the age of eight, children can already type faster than they can handwrite.

But, as Ms Adoniou acknowledged, handwriting can play a crucial part in brain development. 

'Although the ease, speed and versatility of technology are widely acknowledged, handwriting proponents say that how we learn to write does indeed matter.

'Research indicates that learning to write in cursive further improves students' motor and visual skills, eye-to-hand co-ordination, spatial awareness, hand and finger dexterity, cognitive function and brain development.

'They say the physical act of handwriting also facilitates the retention of information and the flow of ideas.'

For example, in a recent study from Indiana University, researchers conducted brain scans on five-year-olds before and after receiving different letter-learning tasks.

In children who practiced writing letters by hand, the neural activity was more enhanced and 'adult-like' than in those who had simply looked at letters.

And, the brain’s so-called 'reading circuit' - a region of linked connections that become active when reading - was activated during handwriting, but not during typing.


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