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Doyle faces the lame duck test

By Matt Pommer

Gov. Jim Doyle is preparing to push ideas that will test the Legislature, educational groups, the tourism industry and taxpayer organizations.

Doyle has announced he won’t seek re-election next year, and that makes him a lame duck politician. Lame ducks usually find their ideas don’t fly well, especially when hundreds of thousands of families are involved.

Doyle says educational reform will help Wisconsin compete for the billions of federal dollars appropriated for improved education. It’s a bit like the drive for high speed rail lines aimed at capturing federal stimulus money. But changing education is far more complicated.

Young people can learn more if they spend more time in the classroom, Doyle argues. That’s undoubtedly true, but the tourism industry may wince at the school year stretching further into June or classes starting in August. Laws now set the start of school in September. Longer school days are another option.

A longer school year has added costs, ranging from utilities and personnel to busing. More weeks in school aren’t a partisan issue, although it is expected the out-of-power Republican legislators will be critical.

Doyle also apparently wants to overturn Wisconsin law that prohibits paying teachers based on test scores. Federal officials have denounced the Wisconsin law, hinting it could keep Wisconsin from getting new federal education dollars. Moving toward that approach to merit pay would raise difficult questions for school boards and teacher unions.

Teacher unions, a key group for Democrats, favor a more comprehensive approach to testing teachers. The devil is in the details. Leaving the details to local collective bargaining is one approach, but that approach would be a tough question for teacher contracts.

Merit pay suggests higher teacher compensation. School boards will wonder about the source of those increases if federal money expires.

Early reports suggest Doyle is trying to lure teacher union support by tying the reforms allowing increases in the amounts school districts can spend. That smacks of higher property taxes, suggest some watchdogs, such as Mike Birkley, executive director of Wisconsin Property Taxpayers Inc.

“Now is not the time to increase taxes for any reason. Forget the carrot. Use the stick,” he said.

All this will unfold just in time for the 2010 state elections. Unlike the lame duck governor, legislators seeking re-election will find this a key voter issue.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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