The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) says Wisconsin has a problem: Wisconsin’s primary education system is not working.
“Reading and math achievement has been stagnant for two decades while the rest of the country has experienced significant growth,” according to a release from WILL. “About 80% of the students at Milwaukee Public Schools, the biggest district with 77,000 students, are not proficient in English. The results are similar across Wisconsin’s largest cities, including Green Bay, Madison, and Kenosha.”
To fix the problems, CJ Szafir and Libby Sobic of WILL have written a report, “Roadmap to Student Achievement,” a two-year effort to create a number of policy recommendations to improve student performance.
“There’s no doubt that Wisconsin has some strong K-12 schools, especially traditional public schools in the suburbs of Milwaukee and Madison,” Szafir told WTMJ’s Steve Scaffidi on Tuesday. “And for those parents that can afford to live there, kudos to them. Their kids are getting a very high quality education.”
However, Szafir said, that Wisconsin K-12 schools taken as a whole are not doing enough to educate the state’s children.
“We’re really struggling,” Szafir said. “There are some people in this state that are getting substandard, some of the worst educations, in the entire country.”
The problem isn’t only in Milwaukee Public Schools, the report notes, although the 60% graduation rate is part of the bad news about the district from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). “According to DPI’s Forward Exam test scores, a staggering 78% of students were not proficient in English, and about 83% of students were not proficient in Math,” the report said.
But school districts outside Milwaukee in urban areas are also failing to educate students from disadvantaged backgrounds, causing Wisconsin to have the largest racial achievement gap in the country.
“In Green Bay, only 19.7% of students from low-income families are proficient in English. A staggeringly low 11.4% of African American students are proficient in English,” the report said. “In Madison, only 9.5% of African American students were found to be proficient in English, and 14.1% of students who are economically disadvantaged were proficient.”
Szafir told Scaffidi in the interview that it was not a funding issue. Wisconsin ranks about average on school spending, according to Szafir, and Milwaukee ranks 13th in the nation for school funding for cities.
Sobic agreed. “I would say that it’s a political issue,” she said. “We need to encourage our policy makers to put policies in place to help high performing schools expand so more children, who are in these struggling schools, can access better education.”
To help students have greater access to high performing schools, Sobic and Szafir said lawmakers must take on the state’s administrative barriers. “That can include things like having a schedule of when kids can apply, and having it different for different kids depending on where they live,” Sobic said. “Making it more difficult for families and schools to get more kids in their school doors.”
In addition to the barriers for current schools in the choice programs, Szafir said Wisconsin needs more high quality schools. “What we laid out is several policy recommendations to incentivise high performing schools to expand,” Szafir said. “It starts in Milwaukee with a vacant schools problem that has to be fixed. We have to force Milwaukee Public Schools and the city of Milwaukee to sell these buildings that are just sitting empty.”
Sobic agreed, saying that national charter school operations do not open in Wisconsin as much because of the lack of available facilities.
Another opportunity to improve access to high performing schools is for greater access to transportation for those students wanting to attend those schools.
“We really need to have equitable transportation policies so that all students can get to school safely and fairly,” Sobic said. “Right now we’re seeing sort of one rule for public school students and one rule for private school students.”
Compared to other states, Wisconsin isn’t doing enough to get students into high performing schools. “There have been several national education reform studies that rank Wisconsin’s national public charter school laws as some of the worst in the entire country,” Szafir said to Scaffidi. “And a part of that is funding equity. If a child goes to a charter school, or a voucher, they’re worth about $2 thousand less than if they attended a traditional public school, which is inherently unfair and it’s also just poor public policy.”
“We’re underfunding some of the best schools in the city and the state,” Szafir said.
Beyond expanding opportunity, school systems need to have more transparency in how their dollars are spent.
“States like Georgia and Texas have recently passed measures that say, let’s help taxpayers understand where their dollars are going,” Sobic said. “It could look like a database where every school expense is published, so you could say what does MPS spend their money on?”