MADISON – Wisconsin has many distinctions, namely its world-recognized fine cheeses, abundance of craft beer and the Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
But for the last 25 years, Wisconsin has had a less favorable distinction: one of the worst achievement gaps in the country.
The 10 Democrats running for governor say the state has failed students of color both in and out of the classroom while Gov. Scott Walker insists his administration is dedicated to all Wisconsin students.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Wisconsin has maintained one of the largest achievement gaps between white and black students in the country dating back to 1992.
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For example, nearly 40 percentage points separated black and white students’ proficiency in mathematics, according to the latest results of the required state test for Wisconsin students in grades 3 to 8.
Some of the Democratic candidates said a key to solving this gap in academic performance among Wisconsin students is to invest in programs that help residents escape poverty and improve the economy in a school’s community.
Matt Flynn, former head of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said he would work to address poverty in the community where schools show poor academic performance.
“I will address urban poverty and housing inequality,” he said. “Those are issues that have to be addressed outside of school.”
Former director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Mike McCabe also blamed Walker’s decision to pass on federal funds for a high-speed rail project in Milwaukee as evidence of the state not doing enough to invest in low-income communities.
“To have better schools you need stronger communities and stronger local economies,” said McCabe. “You can’t have one without the other.”
Mahlon Mitchell, head of the state’s firefighters union, said addressing the racial academic achievement gap “requires more than educational policy: it also requires addressing statewide income inequality, and homelessness — an inextricable link that Scott Walker has intentionally ignored.”
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Walker says he’s committed to the issue, citing the Achievement Gap Reduction program he signed into law in 2015, which provides funding for schools with class sizes of 18 students per teacher for students living in low-income households, among other requirements.
“The AGR program requires a participating school to create performance objectives, including reducing the achievement gap between low-income students in that school and students in the same grade and subject statewide,” said Austin Altenburg, Walker’s campaign spokesman.
Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) and Madison businesswoman and former Rep. Kelda Roys said the way the state funds schools should be fundamentally changed to address academic achievement among students in poorer areas.
“The way Wisconsin funds schools is not designed to meet the needs of students,” said Vinehout. “This is especially glaring in our inner-city and rural schools.”
Roys said Wisconsin needs a formula “that reflects the real costs of educating our kids and funds districts accordingly and equitably.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Dana Wachs (D-Eau Claire) said his mother and sister, both of whom worked in public education, taught him that educators are best suited to solve problems in schools.
“While I’m wise enough to know that being related to teachers doesn’t make me an expert, it has opened my eyes to realities we face and it has humbled me to know that we’ve got to make sure families and teachers are at the table if we’re going make any real progress,” he said.
Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik also said he would work with educators and school community members to make decisions.
“Seated at this table will be past and present students, teachers, administrators and school board members, as well as community leaders, stakeholders, conventional and unconventional education experts, innovators and others,” he said.
Kenosha attorney Josh Pade said he would create an education commission that would consult with districts across the state.
“This will create the flexibility for schools to have an evidence-based approach to achieving better student performance and lay the groundwork to reform student testing,” he said.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin pointed to Madison schools superintendent Jennifer Cheatham’s administration’s work to make gains in academic achievement among black students, and Madison city officials’ study of after-school programs in Madison to ensure students have access to programs best suited for their needs.
“To a large degree, I attribute this success to her work; but some of the collaborative efforts such as the Out-of-School Time initiative, increased resources committed to neighborhood centers and public libraries, and focusing on health — particularly related to attendance and nutrition — have contributed to the improvement,” he said.
State Superintendent Tony Evers’ campaign manager Maggie Gau referred the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to the Department of Public Instruction, which he has overseen since 2009.
DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy said Evers created an education task force called Promoting Excellence for All, which worked with educators and policymakers across the state to decide concrete strategies to address the gap.
“It’s something we’re still following through with as a toolkit for people that are interested in doing the work of closing gaps,” he said.
McCarthy says, however, the agency has trouble motivating every district to buy into its goals and expectations.
“Closing the achievement gaps is a very challenging and difficult conversation,” he said.
Howard Fuller, Marquette University professor, former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and proponent of Milwaukee’s private school voucher program, said any proposal will run into the hurdle of politics.
“There’s no way to talk about real, real difficult issues like that and somehow it’s not somehow going to run smack up against the partisan realities in our state and in our nation,” he said.
And Fuller is worried that Wisconsin and its political leaders don’t have the capability to compromise and make progress.
“For some of these things that we’re talking about doing, or people even like to toss out there as trial balloons, it requires a level of political compromise that I’m not sure is possible in our state,” he said.