Did Joey show up to school today?  What grade did Britney receive in third grade English?  Did the Larson Family pay the towel fee?  Does Mrs. Rendell cover metrics in her math class?

Some in Wisconsin are making plans for a state-wide student information system set for implementation next year. The plan is to have every school in the state use the same web-based system. A single private company will be awarded a five year contract.

Most of the cost for operating the system will be shouldered by cash strapped schools.

The private vendor will be paid by fees assessed on each school district. The annual cost of maintaining the system has not yet been determined; estimates run between eight and twenty-two million a year. Fifteen million dollars in start-up costs for the new system was set aside in a special account controlled by the Legislature’s budget writing committee. But the money to run the new system has not been budgeted.

I see the effects of deep budget cuts when I visit our local schools. Class sizes are larger, bus rides longer, experienced teachers retired, fewer electives, support staff reduced to bare bones and fees increased. Some teachers are reduced to part time.

Budget cuts are so deep even children’s milk and breakfast programs felt the effects.

State officials argue the new student information system is needed to efficiently collect and analyze student data. Every task the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) does involves student information. Having local schools do the “data input” allows the state to focus on the analysis. Demands for accountability mean more analysis and more reports.

Every superintendent I’ve met tells me too much staff time is spent on reports and paperwork. Forms are redundant. State requests overlap. Paper moves slowly through the system, taking precious time away from the primary task of children’s education.

The problem state officials are trying to resolve is real. I am not sure the solution is the right approach at the right time.

Tomah is a sprawling school district covering almost five hundred square miles. With nine schools and 3,100 students, the district is fairly typical in Wisconsin.  The district gives us a glimpse into a completely different solution to taming the paperwork beast of student information.

Tomah excels at their student computer system. Youngsters take tests on-line and receive immediate feedback. Parents can check on-line to monitor student progress and homework assignments. Teachers have flexibility to create their own grade books and student exercises.

Changes to the school accounting system in 2000 helped spur the development of a student information system that, by 2006, was sought after by other districts. At an average cost of three dollars per student, the system is a real bargain.

The system also meets the six standards set by the state for its state-wide student computer system. But Tomah officials learned last week that the state will no longer allow Tomah or any other school district to have its own system. Tomah officials are upset they will be forced to scrap more than a decade of work and spend as much as $50,000 per year on a private system they do not need.

DPI recently released a report that actually made provisions for Tomah to continue to use their student information system.  I was told by officials the Governor’s office nixed this plan. 

The same report listed eight states in the nation that have a state-wide student information system. Only three states make this system mandatory. Wisconsin school districts had the freedom to hire their own vendor. Or, in the case of Tomah, create their system in-house.

But Wisconsin is now ‘open for business’ and it appears the renewal of contracts in four districts (albeit large districts) is opening the door for one firm to capture the entire market of school information systems.

A contract that could be worth over $42 million dollars in the next budget, with a deal signed in the next few months.

All of this action will begin with a vote sometime next month by the sixteen members of the Joint Finance Committee. The Legislators are set to release the money to begin the process of hiring a firm to oversee all student information state-wide.

Wisconsin does not have a great track record in overseeing private vendors working on state computer systems. State auditors found millions in cost overruns, compromised timeliness, inadequate planning and lack of oversight. One system with nearly a $25 million price tag was replaced after only five years.

We must not go down the same road with this project. I urge my Legislative colleagues vote ‘no’ on spending fifteen million dollars to start a project when we don’t even know costs for annual operations.  Take the time to find the lowest cost solution that works for schools. Take the fifteen million and send it back to the schools; for children at risk, for advanced placement classes, for school breakfast and school milk.