By LaKeshia Myers
The education landscape in Wisconsin can be a confusing and often convoluted maze for those who are not intricately versed in the many programs, school types, and offerings available to families across the state. The state of Wisconsin was “ground zero” in the early 1990s with the advent of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, most commonly known as the “voucher program”. Since the program’s original launch in 1990, school voucher programs have spread across the state, and are now open to religious schools, a departure from the original legislative mandate. Aside from the Choice Programs, Wisconsin allows open enrollment—meaning a parent can choose to send their child to any school district in the state, so long as the receiving school district has sufficient space for the student and the parents can ensure transportation for the student. In total, Wisconsin essentially operates five school systems: traditional public schools, charter schools (which include instrumentality, non-instrumentality, and independent schools), virtual schools, voucher schools, and home schools.
Here is one truth that may be difficult to accept; Wisconsin has far too many programs and not enough dollars to equitably operate them all. With such an expansive educational landscape and so many options offered to families, I believe it is time for our state to seriously think about what we can do to become better stewards of the limited resources we have that have been allocated for education. We cannot realistically sustain five separate school systems under one umbrella.
According to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), 765,000 students are enrolled in traditional public schools. This is the majority of students in the state of Wisconsin. When it comes to alternative program options, 58,000 students participate in open enrollment; meaning students are still served by a public school (just not in their home district). Additionally, 28,000 students attend district-operated charter schools. These students are also being served by a school that has autonomy, but falls under the auspice of the local school district. 51,256 students are spread between the three voucher programs, virtual school, and independent charter schools. With the options available within open enrollment, one has to question why the state continues to operate three voucher programs as well as independent charter schools? This methodology seems fiscally errant and a duplication of efforts.
Another seminal matter that should be discussed are the population trends in our state. According to DPI, 75% of the total student population are located in just 30% of the state’s school districts. Rural population decline is a reality that we must accept. Population decline directly impacts smaller school districts and can be taxing on residents of those districts. Such was the case with the Palmyra-Eagle School District. Earlier this year, the Palmyra-Eagle School District voted to dissolve due to the community voting down a referendum request. With no other recourse, the district decided it could no longer continue to operate its schools. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, if the district continues with the dissolution process, the seven surrounding school districts would absorb the remaining students.
Having taught in school districts both in and outside Wisconsin, I am aware of and have seen the fiscal impact of consolidated school districts. Historically, many school districts in the southern United States operate county-based school systems. This was a direct result of post-Civil War Reconstruction, but it created the opportunity for schools to serve the students in their locality. While I do not think this would adequately help in Wisconsin’s situation (due to the makeup of larger municipalities operating autonomous districts and smaller districts stretching across many counties), I do believe consolidation could and should be considered for many rural districts in the future.
In the 2019-21 biennial budget, the state legislature made strides to actively invest in education. While this year’s investment was the much better than in years past, it most definitely does not go far enough to address the eight years of flat education funding experienced by Wisconsin schools. It is my hope that we continue to increase the overall funding of our schools, but also reevaluate the structure and fiscal propensity of each of the five programs to remain stable in the future. Our school districts should have the necessary tools to properly educate our students to compete in a global marketplace. This means, recruiting and retaining certified teachers and ensuring districts can offer full academic programs that include International Baccalaureate programs, dual enrollment options, art, physical education, music, and world languages.
Just as King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 10:19, “A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.”