The State of Our Schools

With less drama, better data and a determined new superintendent, Madison schools forge ahead

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What does this mean for Madison schools? More than you might think, because Republican legislators have signaled that they’re just getting started on changing the entire state’s education system from pre-kindergarten to graduate school and beyond. Allowing new entities to create publicly funded schools not bound by traditional public accountability, they say, will clear the way for more parent control and presumably better student services. After all, if every tax dollar isn’t supporting quality education for all students within existing parameters, shouldn’t some of those dollars be freed up to go beyond those parameters in order to better serve the under-served students?

“Certainly there is a push nationally from some powerful quarters to privatize education,” says Ed Hughes, president of the Madison school board. “That push has found a receptive audience with Governor Walker and some members of the Legislature, and has led to proposals to expand charter schools, charter authorizers and vouchers.”

Currently, a charter authorizer is generally a school district that puts control in the hands of the school board elected to set policies and budgets for the district. Madison has two charter schools, both of which were approved by the school board. Under some of the proposals Hughes mentions, though, any person or entity could establish a charter school in a school district without approval of the district’s school board. This would cause districts all over the state to re-jigger their budgets to adjust to the per-pupil general school aid that would leave the district when the students head off to charter schools. In other words, every public school loses state funding every time a public school student becomes a charter school student. Further, variations on these proposals would limit or abolish requirements that a charter school be governed by or accountable to the school board and, by extension, the voters.

So public school administrators, teachers and district personnel across the state and here in Madison are watching warily.

“As school board members, we can make our views on the value of our public schools known to our legislators,” says Hughes. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t have much of an impact, given the current political environment in the Capitol.”

Teachers here say the negative chatter about the effectiveness of public education from Act 10 until today has changed people’s perception of public education and of the role teachers play. Some are starting to feel the ground they have lost will never be recovered and that their careers, not to mention the teaching profession, have been compromised.

And they are not alone. Ninety-five percent of Wisconsin teachers surveyed last fall by public opinion research firm Wood Communications Group reported that they believed the adult public in our state did not understand how the challenges facing education have changed since they were in school. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they didn’t believe the public understood or appreciated the contributions of teachers to education. And a third of teachers responded to a question on the survey by saying that they would “probably not” or “definitely not” choose teaching as a career if they had it to do over again.

Cheatham agrees with the teachers that the tone of the public conversation has been damaging. “In education, and this is true in Wisconsin and across the country, we spend too much time criticizing teachers; the dialogue has been, I think, unhealthy and punitive. We do need to find more opportunities to highlight our progress.”

Still, Madison teachers say they’re a resilient bunch. The context has changed and the environment has changed and the backtalk has changed, they say, but teaching remains the same.

“Through it all, the joy of actually teaching, that never goes away,” says Coyne. “All the moments when you work with students and you see their faces light up when they learn something, when they connect with an idea or develop a new skill, that is what teachers really care about. It is simply who they are and that is something Madison teachers do every day.”

ACCROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE

Teachers aren’t the only ones bemoaning the fallout from Act 10. Kaleem Caire, president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, says the timing of the law harmed the rollout of what he had hoped would become a signature partnership between his organization and the school district: a charter middle school for male students of color called Madison Preparatory Academy.

PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY

Kaleem Caire is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison. 

Madison Prep’s very public launch and subsequent crash grabbed the city’s conversation about schools by the throat. Social media sites such as Facebook and the comments sections of newspapers and television stations became free-for-alls whenever talk turned to the achievement gap, the proposed school or Madison teachers. Talk radio pundits and print media columnists weighed in, stirring the pot as emotions rose from simmer to boil.

Caire blasted the schools for the achievement gap and asked why not one teacher in the entire district had been fired because of it. Union supporters charged him with using the achievement gap as furtherance of a right-wing agenda to undermine public education. 

Opinion quickly dialed up to hyperbole, which it often does when the subject is education. Schools here were failing or thriving or innovative or stale or too expensive or a bargain at any price. The teachers’ union was interested only in power, or was public education’s last line of defense. The school board was a rubber stamp for the union or the only moderately sane, adult voice in the debate. Parents were either sadly uninvolved or scarily over-involved. Any proposed change was an attack on public education in general, or an encroachment on the bargaining rights of all public workers, or was a magic key that would open the kingdom of education to a sparkling new future.

Thus, at a time when the value of public education was suddenly a point of debate and when national and state political leaders were suddenly implying that teachers were little more than a drain on tax dollars, Madison teachers and their supporters were doubly upset when hometown accusations of racism and intransigence were leveled. They said significant factors such as poverty, employment inequities and family instability were to be blamed for dragging down scholastic achievement, and cited numerous studies to back up their claims.

Today, Caire’s tone has moderated. Somewhat.

“Teachers are not to blame for the problems kids bring into the classroom,” he says. “But teachers have to teach the kids in front of them. And Madison teachers are not prepared to do that. Now we have two choices: Make excuses why these kids can’t make it and just know that they won’t. Or move beyond and see a brighter future for kids.”

Many parents back him up. And many parents of students of color say that their experience with Madison’s public schools—both as students here, themselves, and now as parents—is simply much different and much worse than what they see white students and parents experiencing.

“I just always felt like I was on as a parent, like every time I walked through the door of that school I would have to go to bat for my son,” says Sabrina Madison, mother of a West High graduate who is now a freshman at UW–Milwaukee. “Do you know how many times I was asked if I wanted to apply for this [assistance] program or that program? I would always say, ‘No, we’re good.’ And at the same time, there is not the same ACT prep or things like that for my child. I was never asked ‘Is your son prepared for college?’ I never had that conversation with his guidance counselor.”

Hedi Rudd, whose two daughters graduated from East and son from West, says it has been her experience that the schools are informally segregated by assistance programs and that students of color are more likely to be treated with disrespect by school personnel. “Walk into the cafeteria and you’ll see the kids [of color] getting free food and the white students eating in the hall. I walked into the school office one day,” she recalls. “I look young and the secretary thought I was a student. She yelled, ‘What are you doing here?’ I just looked at her and said, ‘Do you talk to your students like that?’”

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