The educational product

WASB chief John Ashley promotes the value of public education.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

John Ashley, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB), is the product of a good education.

A Milwaukee native, he grew up in a working-class, African-American family during the 1960s when the city was struggling with racial tensions, riots, and curfews. Were it not for his parents’ emphasis on the value of education, things could have been a lot worse.

Instead, Ashley, 61, who lost his father at age 13, went on to graduate from Harvard with degrees in history and economics. Among his seven siblings are a circuit court judge, an attorney with the Department of Education, and another holding a Ph.D. “We all doubled down,” he says.

In his 11th year at WASB, Ashley is focused on making sure other children receive only the best educational opportunities, as well. We recently spoke with him about the state’s educational environment.

IB: What does WASB do?
We support the school board members who create policy based on discussions and reasonable conversations in their communities. They have a very difficult job and are not paid. They choose to take valuable time away from their families because they understand that education is important.

IB: Will we always have school boards?
I worry about fielding future school boards. Who will run? Politics is almost a dirty word nowadays, but it’s important that those who run for school board reflect the values of the communities they live in and not come to the table with a personal agenda. It’s about the kids. Also, school boards are intricately connected to our lives through property values and taxes. That’s why it’s so crucial that they make sure all funds are spent wisely for the betterment of their local communities. Wisconsin is overwhelmingly rural and we have great support for our schools.

IB: There’s a teacher shortage. Is that a direct result of Act 10?
The truth is teacher shortages are everywhere. In Pennsylvania and California, for example, there’s a 30% decrease in those applying to higher-education programs. It’s a very real issue because if we’re not getting college students into the pipeline, the problem is exacerbated. The rising costs of education and student loan debt are also problematic. Paying students during their teaching practicums in college could be a start. There also have been discussions about loan forgiveness for those who serve in challenging neighborhoods.



IB: How has teaching changed over the years?
The saying is it’s no longer the sage on the stage, it’s the guide on the side. Kids today love their [electronic] devices and learn that way. Classrooms and teachers are more project-oriented and collaborative. I am concerned that with social media and the internet we are creating a generation of people who just regurgitate the thoughts of someone who agrees 100% with them. Students have to recognize that there are differences of opinions, and just because something is on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true. We need an arbiter to help them determine what’s real.

IB: What about school safety?
WASB is extra vigilant that our schools have good security plans in place. We also watch bullying, which unfortunately occurs 24/7 through social media. We have to help this generation understand how not to use technology to mistreat others.

IB: The state is looking into ways to expand broadband. How does that impact educational opportunities?
This issue keeps me up at night. In our rural districts, service can be intermittent or expensive. Telecoms may not see a lot of return on their investment, but the situation leaves many of our rural districts at a disadvantage and causes a huge divide in our urban communities, as well.

IB: What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Unpredictability in terms of funding allocations every year. We also don’t know what the federal government will do on certain issues — transgender students, for example — so we’re constantly caught in a world where we have no control.

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