By Meghann Olson
Beloit School District Superintendent Dr. Lowell Holtz is one of five candidates competing in the Feb.17 primary election to replace current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Elizabeth Burmaster. Holtz is running against Van Mobley, Todd Price, Tony Evers, and Rose Fernandez, but said he is the candidate with the best experience and a tangible plan to bring change to Wisconsin public schools.
Holtz has been a school administrator for nearly two decades, working as a principal in Cambridge and Peshtigo, and working as superintendent in Palmyra-Eagle and Beloit. He has been awarded Wisconsin Principal of the Year and National Distinguished Principal.
Holtz said he has proven experience, in both small rural districts and large urban districts, improving student achievement and quality of education without increasing budgets, and said he hopes to utilize his experience improving all Wisconsin schools as the next State Superintendent.
What about your experience qualifies you to serve as State School Superintendent?
While overseeing the rural Peshtigo and Palmyra-Eagle schools, Holtz created a seven-step plan that he said helped under-achieving schools increase standards and performance, while sticking to a tight budget. Holtz replicated his plan during his first year as superintendent in Beloit, and for the first time in four years, the larger urban Beloit School District was removed from the federal list that identifies schools in need of improvement.
"When I came to Beloit, I thought it would be a fun challenge to see if the things we had done in smaller rural schools to improve achievement and work on budget issues would work in a larger urban district," Holtz said. "So we laid out the seven-step plan that can be implemented in any school district in the country."
Details of Holtz's plan can be found on his website, but in brief, the plan calls for school board goals and leadership; community vision and partnerships; data-driven decisions; increased expectations; extended learning opportunities; re-culturing, respect, and relationships; extended learning opportunities; community effort. A large component of the plan engages local businesses and prioritizes partnerships between schools, parents, and the business community.
Holtz said he would like to apply his plan in schools across the state, to improve academic achievement while limiting the burden to taxpayers.
"I have experience addressing the needs of kids and also the needs of our businesses and communities," Holtz said. "We are at a turning point with K12 public education and it is truly time for a change because for so long we've been operating in isolation. We don't talk to the business community to find out what they need for workforce skills coming into their businesses, we don't do a very good job of talking to post-secondary education, so the communication needs to take place."
What is the role of the state superintendent?
Holtz said the DPI's role should be changing to meet the needs of business and industry as well as students. Holtz said career and technical education is one of his top priorities, but the current DPI administration has created roadblocks, hindering students' ability to get hands-on teaching from business and industry experts.
"The DPI determines how to interpret state and federal laws, so we need a state superintendent that encourages relationships between industry-certified people and students in the classroom," Holtz said. "In Beloit, we started a career and tech. ed. academy that was so popular, the surrounding businesses asked us to expand it. But the DPI has made it difficult for us to get industry-certified experts to help teach classes."
Holtz explained that industry-certified workers, such as welders, automotive technicians, or electricians are not allowed to come into the classroom and teach unless they are a vocationally certified teacher.
"You can hire a vocationally certified teacher who never taught welding in their life, but because they got that certification, they can teach that class," Holtz explained. "Meanwhile we have this master craftsman in business over here willing to teach the class and provide the skills that businesses need but he can't because the DPI determines how they interpret law even though there are the same federal laws in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, and they have systems where they can get those master craftsmen in the classroom."
Holtz said in addition to eliminating roadblocks to students' future success, the DPI also needs to take a leadership role in helping schools deal with an economic recession.
"With the state saying they are going to have a $5 billion deficit, the schools haven't seen anything yet," Holtz said. "And the only way to keep K12 public education viable and meeting the needs of students and parents and the community is to form those business partnerships like we did in Beloit."
What will be your top priorities as the next state superintendent?
Holtz said his first priority will be creating business-education partnerships in school districts, to improve students' preparation for the work force and increase student achievement. He said his second priority will be addressing unequal educational opportunities.
"Milwaukee is a perfect example of where you have some of the best schools in the nation and two or three blocks away, some of the worst schools," Holtz said. "I would very much like to start working with the school board in Milwaukee to implement that seven-step program. And not working just on failing schools in Milwaukee, there is no reason for any failing schools in Wisconsin."
Holtz's third priority is reducing unfunded mandates.
"Unfunded mandates are really nailing property taxpayers, but I have experience over the last almost two decades in keeping the budget under control while improving academic achievement and actually reducing the budget while improving academic achievement, so it can be done," Holtz said. "I worry if we don't address those issues in the next couple years, K12 public education is going to cease to exist as we know it, especially in a recession."
Holtz's fourth priority is working with the federal government to modify No Child Left Behind.
"No Child Left Behind and its unfunded mandates and the way it unfairly treats some of the populations like special education students are almost cruel," Holtz said. "So I would work very hard with the administration in Washington as a child advocate for our kids to make sure each child has the opportunity and that funding for our programs aren't cut, so they get a well-rounded education."
What is your position on the QEO?
Holtz said as a fiscally conservative taxpayer, he thinks the QEO should be eliminated.
"In a recession, you are lucky to get a one percent increase," Holtz said. "But we are guaranteeing one group of people a 3.8 percent increase each year no matter what happens with the economy. As a taxpayer that doesn't make sense to me."
Holtz added that even teachers are opposed to the QEO, because it singles them out.
"It would be like sitting business people around the table and setting a limit just because they negotiate well," Holtz said. "There are other ways to do it, and I am sure the teachers know that in a recession, if they don't have the QEO, they probably will have smaller increases, but they are opposed on an ethical standard to the QEO so they are willing to take that risk and get rid of it because it shouldn't be there."
What do you think needs to be done in terms of education funding and how can the DPI play a role in reforming the current funding system?
Holtz said the two weaknesses of the current funding system are the increasing property tax burden and wide variations of per-pupil spending.
"I would recommend equalizing access to state and local revenues for all districts, while balancing funding for special needs," Holtz suggested. "You need to reduce the spending and taxing disparities between school districts while you provide equitable distribution of the property tax burden."
What do you think about school choice and voucher programs?
Holtz said the issue of school choice has become a civil rights issue, particularly in Milwaukee.
"If you're in the neighborhood of the very worst schools, and right across the street is a very good school, you want to know why your child can't go to that school and be successful," Holtz said. "It could have been addressed in the past if the schools would have been improved so they were equal, but it wasn't."
But Holtz said taxpayers are concerned about the accountability of voucher schools.
"If I'm putting money into a program, I want to know how successful the program is," Holtz said. "I think the best of both worlds is to continue the voucher program while they improve the Milwaukee public schools, but increase accountability of the program."
How will you work to find innovations and help lead schools in closing achievement gaps?
"The DPI needs to provide the tools," Holtz said. "Wisconsin is blessed with a very talented group of educators. Sometimes we don't give them the tools necessary and it doesn't always mean more money. It could be better leadership, reducing unfunded mandates so you can repurpose your money into those areas that you want to improve, and the seven-step formula is a real simple formula that is a common-sense approach that will be successful in any school district in the country and the districts just need the opportunity to do that."
Holtz said his efforts in Beloit resulted in improving achievement at all levels.
"We didn't just raise the lower level, we also raised the upper level," Holtz explained. "We didn't just add remedial work, we added Advanced Placement courses at the same time. We also developed partnerships with the university to come in and give our kids some credits while they are in high school, so they have that incentive to keep going, so it's a focus of academic achievement on all levels."
What school programs need the most improvement or attention?
"What I'm worried about is with the loss of funding, you tend to lose elective classes like the foreign language classes," Holtz said. "You lose the arts classes and the performing arts, drama, and music programs. I want to make sure we don't lose funding for those key areas."
What are some new programs you are aware of that will help better prepare students for the global economy/workforce of the 21st Century?
Holtz said schools should do a better job utilizing technology for learning.
"Online learning is using technology as a tool to learn even more information than you could within four walls, and we need to really push that with our kids because it is a knowledge economy," Holtz said. "I think that's what we need to do to be more competitive on a global level and make sure that our kids have the tools and the foreign language opportunities. We need our curriculum to be a little more focused and deep, so we can compete well on a national level. If you have more of a narrow focus that goes deeper, kids can get more creative as they dig deeper."
Why should voters vote for you?
"I have proven experience," Holtz said. "The reason I am doing this is I love children and I believe it's time for a change in K12 public education in Wisconsin that not only addresses the needs of our kids but also the needs of our businesses and communities. Vote for me because I have experience doing that, I can do it. I worked for the past decade under No Child Left Behind and have been successful with it, and have been successful working with the communities and the teachers and have been successful in keeping the cap on the budget so that it doesn't expand too rapidly."