Dr. Will Flanders of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty testified Thursday at the Assembly Committee on Education public hearing regarding AB 830, a bill to create Education Savings Accounts for gifted students from low-income families. These are his remarks to the committee as prepared.
Dear Chairman Thiesfeldt, and members of the Assembly Committee on Education,
Thank you for the opportunity to testify about AB 830. I am Dr. Will Flanders, the research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a not-for-profit law and policy center. I am appearing before you today to discuss WILL’s research – which I have handed out to you – on gifted education in Wisconsin, and the need for greater access to services and programs, especially for low-income gifted children.
The Problems with Gifted Education
There are a number of problems with gifted education that are faced not just in Wisconsin, but around the country. Our K-12 education system is primarily geared towards helping students reach a minimum level of proficiency, with few incentives to move beyond that. Consequently, teachers are forced to focus attention on the lowest achievers, while the needs of high achievers are often left under-served.
This is highlighted by data that we gathered from across the state on the number of districts that have a gifted teacher on staff. According to the most recent data from DPI, nearly 64 percent of Wisconsin public school districts across the state do not have a dedicated gifted teacher or staff member. This problem is most severe in Wisconsin’s rural school districts, which are the most likely to lack gifted staff.
A second way of studying how a state is meeting the needs of high achievers is to look at the number of AP Exams that are taken in the state. Once again, we see a disparity along urban and rural lines. In urban districts, AP exams are taken in an average of 19 subjects. In rural districts, the average is only four.
Wisconsin also has a problem with the identification process for gifted students. Currently, the process is subject to a great deal of subjectivity; left almost entirely in the hands of school districts and teachers. While they may be well-meaning, academic studies have found that students, minority students, and those from low-income backgrounds are far less likely to be identified than other students, even accounting for factors like prior academic achievement. In Wisconsin, the most recent data on gifted education shows that Hispanic students are particularly underrepresented in Gifted Education, representing 9.8 percent of the state’s population but only 6.5 percent of students identified as gifted.
The Benefits of the Gifted ESA
It is my belief that AB 830, under consideration today, would go a long way in remedying these problems. The legislation would provide students with the opportunity to seek out supplemental services that are not currently available to them in their school or may be out of reach financially for families. There are any number of examples of creative ways that the ESA could be used. For example, students could take advantage of the ESA to fund a prep class, which studies have found can have a significant impact on the likelihood that a student will do well on nationally norm-referenced tests like the ACT. Students with a gift for music can use the ESA to fund private lessons, which research has shown has positive spillover effects in subjects like mathematics.
Another benefit of this legislation that should not be understated is the increased likelihood that students from low income and minority backgrounds will be identified. The legislation provides that students scoring in the top 5 percent of state subject exams will be classified as “gifted,” and be eligible for the ESA. State exams are nothing if not objective – judging all students on a level playing field without the sort of implicit biases that are an unfortunate reality in every human mind.
The bill would also open up gifted services for students in Wisconsin’s school choice programs. Under the current Course Options law in Wisconsin, students in public schools are able to take advantage of classes offered at participating private schools, but private school students do not enjoy the same privilege. This ESA proposal would level the playing field for families of students in choice schools who want to tailor the best possible education for their student, which might mean a mix of public and private classes.
Education Scholar Chester Finn has argued that our failure to focus on the needs of America’s high ability children puts our nation at risk of being left behind. For a state like Wisconsin which is undertaking many efforts to become a hub for technology and the jobs of the future, it is vital that we produce a workforce capable of undertaking these jobs. Under this legislation, the State of Wisconsin has an opportunity to become a leader in meeting the needs of our highest achieving pupils. Through this legislation, we can enrich the lives of Wisconsin’s gifted kids at no cost to the needs of the other students with whom they share the classroom.
Will Flanders, Ph.D.
Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty