If you ask Scott Walker, Milwaukee Schools are in a state of crisis. To justify a loosely-articulated plan to take over the state’s largest district, he said in a recent TV interview that “some 60 of the 70-plus schools that were failing in the state were in Milwaukee.” This is, perhaps surprisingly to some, not entirely true. According to the 2016-17 Department of Public Instruction (DPI) School Report Card, there were 117 schools rated “Fails to Meet Expectations” in the State of Wisconsin. Of those, 77 were located in the City of Milwaukee, but just 46 of those were a part of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The other 31 schools were voucher schools or private charters, the very institutions that Walker has championed over the years as the premier solution to all our educational ills.
Taking a wider view, let’s look at the 20 lowest-performing school districts from the 2016-2017 school year, which include all districts statewide that were rated “Meets few expectations,” Is Milwaukee, as Walker seemed to indicate with his comments, the lowest-performing district? The answer is “no.” That distinction belongs to New Lisbon, with a paltry 54.1 Accountability Score, nearly 2 full points lower than MPS (56.0). Other districts in the bottom-20 include Adams-Friendship (#3), Racine (#6), Marinette (#8), Rhinelander (#13), Beloit (#14), and Green Bay (#16).
With so many large and medium-sized districts struggling to meet expectations, why is it that Walker and his allies in the legislature choose to focus on Milwaukee? Could it be because it’s one of our state’s two largest Democratic strongholds along with Dane County? It’s certainly possible, though difficult to prove, particularly in the era of tribal politics and “fake news” we live in today.
Perhaps instead we should ask a more useful question: are these low-performing districts truly failing, or is it the communities themselves that have been failed? There is no easy answer, but thankfully DPI has some useful data in its district report cards that may offer some clues. Most would agree that our racial achievement gap in Wisconsin is dreadful. Simply put, Wisconsin’s white students, on average, perform at significantly higher levels than children of color, and disparities between our white and African-American students are among the very worst in the entire nation.
Most would also agree that students who have disabilities, are economically disadvantaged, have limited English proficiency, suffer from housing instability, or who have poor attendance at school are likely to struggle academically, no matter what school they go to. How do the 20 lowest-performing school districts rank on these measures? The answer might surprise you.
Milwaukee, the largest and most-maligned district in the state, ranks in the top 10 in 5 of these risk factors. Green Bay ranks in the top 20 in 4 of them. Marinette and Rhinelander, on the other hand, don’t crack the top 50 in any of the above-mentioned risk factors, yet still rank among the 20 lowest-performing school districts in Wisconsin. Clearly there is something going on that’s getting in the way of student performance in these districts, and that deserves further study. Perhaps it has something to do with the opioid crisis, which has hit Marinette County rather hard, including State Rep. Nygren’s own daughter. Whatever the case may be, it would be foolhardy to say our educators are at fault.
Would Walker ever consider a state takeover of Marinette’s public schools? Given his demonstrated hatred of all things public, particularly public employees, I certainly wouldn’t put it past him. Thus far he seems largely content to focus on Milwaukee, but with the voucher program’s recent evolution into a statewide enterprise, even that is beginning to change.
In the same interview where Gov. Walker made his false claims about Milwaukee schools, he also said “for the parents and the students in this city, it is a moral imperative that things get better.” On this point he’s absolutely correct, but how do we get there?
For Milwaukee, Menominee Nation, Beloit, Adams-Friendship, and Racine, it means alleviating poverty, which leads to housing instability, poor health outcomes, behavioral distress, food insecurity, and more. For Green Bay, where over 20% of students have limited English proficiency, it means investing in programs for English Language Learners, so students don’t fall behind simply because of the language their parents speak at home. More broadly, it means looking at each district’s unique needs and addressing those needs first, before pointing fingers at our teachers, who’ve been a convenient scapegoat of right-wing talk-radio hosts for over two decades.
When it comes to education, any chance for significant improvement demands that we elect leaders who invest in our schools, invest in our communities, and who put the needs of the people first. For almost 8 years, whether by will or incompetence, Scott Walker has proven that he simply isn’t up to the task.
Mandela Barnes is an organizer, policy professional, and former 2-term State Representative. He is currently running for Lieutenant Governor to restore and expand opportunity across Wisconsin.