Blame Wisconsin Republicans, Not Schools, For Falling Test Scores

Wisconsin Republican State Assembly Speaker, Robin Vos (Rochester), appeared to blame a drop in test scores in math and reading proficiency in the state on public schools this week.

Vos’s comment came in response to the Department of Public Instruction releasing their annual study on how students performed during the 2018-19 school year on standardized testing in math and reading proficiency. The study found that the state saw a slight drop in both reading and math proficiency over the previous school year.

In math, the number of students who were considered proficient was 40.1%. It’s the first time in three years that the state saw a decline in math proficiency, but the gains over the previous two years were only “gradual” to begin with (40.6% in 2016-17, 41.1% in 2017-18).

The number of students considered proficient in reading dropped to 39.3% of all students. That marks the third consecutive school year where proficiency in reading has declined (42.7% in 2016-17, 40.6% in 2017-18). That’s a 3.4% drop in reading proficiency over just the past two school years.

Criticizing public schools is something Wisconsin Republicans are accustomed to doing. It’s been a hallmark of their platform since they took over control of the state legislature in 2010.

Let’s set the record straight on what’s happened to our education system under their watch.

Before Scott Walker and the Republican legislature took office, Wisconsin ranked 12th in the country in education. In 2018, Wisconsin ranked 14th, including being ranked 16th in K-12 education, and 11th in higher education.

Wisconsin’s ranking, however, doesn’t begin to tell the story of some of the deeper issues going on in our education system in this state, some of which will only continue to get worse as the long-term effects of Republican policies begin to kick-in.

Between 2013-2018, Wisconsin saw the fourth largest decline in the country in education spending put towards higher education. Specifically, the state saw about an 8% decline in appropriations per student during that time period “from $7,002 to $6,435.” This came at a time when “the United States as a whole” saw “more than a 15 percent increase in state funds per student.”

Since those cuts were enacted, Wisconsin has seen the costs of those cuts pushed onto students. Walker and the Republican legislature put a 5.5% tuition increase across the UW system into law in their first budget, before later imposing a tuition freeze. The state has also “flat-lined” the amount of financial aid provided to students, and they’ve refused to allow students to refinance their student loans. That’s making higher education even less affordable than it already was.

At the K-12 level, things have been even worse.

Our state has seen the pipeline of teachers dry up under Republican control. ” According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), from 2010 to 2015, enrollment in teacher licensing programs dropped almost 30 percent. And more than 20 percent of those in school to become teachers don’t finish the program.”

An article in the USA Today from last year found that the problem of teacher shortages in this state is especially acute in rural areas. That’s still occurring despite substantial efforts by stakeholders to try and attract people to take jobs in those school districts.

There are several contributors to why our state has fallen behind in recruiting teachers. Lower pay, worse benefits, “poor work conditions, unsupportive administrators, stress related to short staffing and a lack of qualified applicants” have all played a part.

Many students are also choosing to forgo the profession entirely because the cost of student loans outweighs the future compensation they will receive if they become a teacher in the state. Even if they do end up going into the profession, they end up going to places where their benefits and compensation are better. That often means going out-of-state, or to suburban schools who have better funding,and can therefore offer better pay and benefits than urban or rural schools.

Many of our problems in K-12 education can be traced directly to Act 10 which the Republicans passed almost immediately after taking control in January 2011. Inflation-adjusted teacher pay in Wisconsin declined by over 4% between 2009 and 2016.

In addition to that, “Between the 2011-12 and 2015-16 school years, median compensation for Wisconsin’s public school teachers fell 12.6 percent, a reduction in wages and benefits of nearly $11,000 annually, according to a study by the left-leaning Center for American Progress. ‘We’ve been nonstop battling the effects of [Act 10],’ says Amy Mizialko, the president of the Milwaukee teachers’ union. ‘Our students have suffered greatly as a result.'”

Overall, Wisconsin now ranks just 33rd in the country in annual teacher salary at $51,469. That’s almost $9,000 below the median teacher salary nationally, and is well below all of our bordering states (Illinois $65,721, Michigan $61,911, Minnesota $57,782, Iowa $57,018). We were ranked 18th in the country in 2010-11, the final school year before the laws that Republicans passed in 2011 went into effect.

To try and fix a problem they largely created, Republicans have loosened licensing requirements to try and address teacher shortfalls. Lowering these standards can result in a worse quality of education as teachers who lack the specific knowledge and qualifications to be experts in a subject are allowed to teach that subject. Less-qualified teachers tend to end up in lower-income districts which contributes to a lower quality of education for those students. It also does little to address the core reasons why people are leaving the profession, or failing to go into it to begin with.

Our state has also made a massive push under their watch for expanding private voucher schools. We’ve spent an estimated $139.5 million on voucher schools since they included funding for them in the 2013 budget. Most of the people who’ve received vouchers we’ve paid for in taxes were already sending their kids to private schools, not to people who were looking to send their kids to potentially “better” schools like Republicans claimed the law was intended for.

Students who attend these private voucher schools are also performing substantially worse on test scores than Wisconsin students are overall. The Department of Public Instruction found that only 22% of students in choice schools were proficient or advanced in reading during the 2018-19 school year. In math, it was just 18%.

Overall, Wisconsin’s education spending in 2017-19 budget they passed, when adjusted for inflation, remained behind the seven budgets preceding the time that Republicans took over in 2011. That means we were still spending less on education through the last budget they passed when they had complete control of the state government than we did before they took power. Spending on special education in particular has been insufficient to address need as well.

Republicans tried last fall to re-brand themselves as the party of education. In fact, Scott Walker referred to himself as the “education governor” in his re-election campaign as he tried to earn credibility on the issue in anticipation of facing a challenge from then State Superintendent Tony Evers. Wisconsin voters knew this was complete malarkey. They voted accordingly.

As the data shows, Wisconsin Republicans have caused havoc throughout our state’s education system. Our teachers are inadequately compensated. Students are abandoning the profession entirely because of a lack of benefits/pay, and the student debt they have to incur in order to become a teacher to begin with. School districts don’t have the tools they need to attract or retain teachers which is having especially devastating effects in rural areas. Special education is significantly underfunded, as are other aspects of education system. We’ve lowered licensing requirements for teachers which can result in a worse quality of education. And, we’re spending millions of tax-payer dollars on vouchers for students attending private schools which are producing worse results overall.

If Speaker Vos and the Republicans in the legislature wants to blame anyone for regressing test scores, they should look in the mirror.

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