The Crime against Wisconsin’s Future
Wisconsin has an extremely unequal education system. Children in suburban schools have much better chances for a good education than those in urban schools; children from higher income, and wealthier, families have much better chances for a good education than those from lower income families without wealth; White children have much better chances for a good education than Black and Hispanic children. And Black and Hispanic children from lower income families attending urban schools have little chance at all for a good education. This despite the fact that under the state’s constitution “Students have a fundamental right to an equal opportunity for a sound basic education.” (Vincent v. Voight, 2000 WI 93, 236 Wis. 2d 588, 614 N.W.2d 388, 97-3174.)
Let us look at the data. Students must learn to read fluently by the time they reach middle school. Grade 8 reading skills are a good indicator of the basic education provided by Wisconsin’s schools to our students. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), given every two years, is considered the “gold standard” for measuring educational achievement by districts and states, nation-wide. Students are scored as having reached the “Advanced” level in their grade, “Proficient”, “Basic,” or below Basic. Students whose schools have brought them to the Proficient or Advanced levels have been called “high performers.” Students whose schools have left them below Basic have not been taught the skills required at their grade level.
We can look at these outcomes by school location, family income, race, and combinations of these.
First, School Location:
Suburban schools in Wisconsin are nearly 2x as likely to teach their students the skills necessary to score in the “high performers” range on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Reading (NAEP) examination as are the state’s city schools. On the other hand, city schools in Wisconsin have 2x the percentage of students scoring “below basic” as do suburban schools. That is, students scoring below Basic have been promoted to eighth grade, but they cannot read eighth grade materials, and there are twice the percentage of these students to be found in Wisconsin’s city schools as in our suburban schools, without regard to family income or race.
Wisconsin students in grade eight who are eligible for the National Lunch Program, that is, whose families are comparatively poor, are less than 1/2 as likely to be judged as performing well on the NAEP Reading examination as are students from more prosperous families. They are nearly 3x as likely to have not been taught how to read as well as expected at their age, without regard to school location or race.
Family Income and Race:
What happens when family income is combined with race? White students in grade eight eligible for the National Lunch Program are just as likely to be unable to read at grade level (scoring “below Basic”) as they are to be “high performers,” scoring at Proficient and above. On the other hand, 4 x the percentage of White students from more prosperous families are high performers as those White students scoring below Basic. Family income is a powerful predictor of how well Wisconsin’s schools teach White students the basic skill of reading.
These ratios are reversed for Black students: 4x the percentage of those eligible for the National Lunch Program have not been taught to read at grade level as those who are high performers, while 4x the percentage of their Black classmates from higher income families are high performers than those scoring below Basic. Family income is a powerful predictor of how well Wisconsin’s schools teach Black students the basic skill of reading.
School Location and Family Income:
Three times the percentage of suburban students from more prosperous households are brought to the high performance level as city school students eligible for the National Lunch Program. Nearly 4x the percentage of city school students eligible for the National Lunch Program have not reached the Basic level in reading in grade eight as suburban schools students from higher income, wealthier, households. It is not surprising, but it should be, that comparatively wealthy suburban families send their children to schools with much better outcomes than comparatively poor urban families. This is true for both Black and White students.
School Location and Family Income and Race:
And finally, most White students from higher income, wealthier families in the suburbs are taught reading well enough to reach the high performing levels, while less than ten percent of Black students eligible for the National Lunch Program in city schools are taught reading well enough to reach the high performing levels. Nearly two-thirds of Black students eligible for the National Lunch Program in city schools are left unable to read at level in Wisconsin’s middle schools.
It is obvious that this situation does not meet the state’s constitutional requirement that “Students have a fundamental right to an equal opportunity for a sound basic education.” All students—suburban and city, from high income and low income families, White and Black and Hispanic. It is, then, the state government’s constitutional duty to allocate the resources necessary to bring the quality of education offered in city schools, provided to students from families with lower incomes and students of color to that offered to White students from higher income families attending suburban schools. It is the state government’s duty to do this year in and year out, not only when extraordinary funds arrive from Washington.
Michael Holzman, July, 2021