New Report Cards Grade Local Schools

Every student received a report card at the end of the first quarter. This fall every school also received a report card.

The Department of Public Instruction recently released report cards on almost all of Wisconsin’s over 2,000 schools. High schools, middle schools, elementary schools and charter schools are all rated.

The report card gives a grade from 0 to 100. The grade is based on four priority areas: student achievement, student growth, on-track and post secondary readiness including attendance, ACT participation and graduation rates, and closing gaps among disadvantaged and disabled students.

Most of our area schools scored average or above average; an exception was the Whitehall Middle School where over half of the students are economically disadvantaged.

Digging deeper into a school’s numbers shows the changing face of our communities. The first real public look we have of a changing community is in the elementary school.

Look at Arcadia: one third of the high school students and over half of the elementary students are economically disadvantaged. Only 14 percent of high schoolers are Hispanic but one third of the elementary students are Hispanic.

The changing make-up of students creates challenges for schools. Disadvantaged students learn best with one-on-one education. In schools with tight resources, teachers often don’t even have a classroom aide, let alone staff for one-on-one education.

Increasing poverty across the state and declining enrollment in many of our schools only exacerbates an already broken school funding formula.

Recently the Senate Education Committee met in Madison to discuss the problems facing schools. One of those to testify was Todd Berry, President of Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

Mr. Berry spoke of the problems facing schools with declining enrollment. School aid is based on the number of students. As schools lose students, aid drops. The drop in state aid is faster than schools can cut costs. The effect is a dramatically lower budget for smaller schools.

One remedy for this problem is funding known as “sparsity “- money for schools that serve a sparsely populated area. In 2007 I amended the state budget to create this change in the school formula. Unfortunately the Governor cut “sparsity” aid by ten percent in the current school budget.

Increasing money for “sparsity” is one of the changes proposed by State Superintendent Tony Evers in his Fair Funding for Schools plan. Another change is additional money for schools serving a large number of disabled or economically disadvantaged students.

Our local schools face challenges much greater than those in years past. More students come from poor homes, more students speak English as their second language and more students come to school with significant disabilities. The state aid payments to schools must recognize these students cost more to educate.

Grading schools on their performance is only part of the answer to solving the challenges. The other part is making sure the money going to schools flows in a way that makes the most sense.

Measuring the needs and basic costs to open the school doors must be part of the formula for success.

There’s a vigorous discussion about changing the formula, but it has been tough for me to pigeon hole my colleagues into committing their vote for a change.

It’s going to take committed communities to back real change in our school formula to make elected officials respond to local needs.

Meanwhile many are taking a look at the school report cards and comparing schools.

One of the local superintendents reminded me the report card is a year-to-year comparison of the same school; not a one-year comparison across schools. But of course everyone did compare across schools this year.

“The real test,” the superintendent told me, “is how well the kids do when they graduate. I took a break one day from my budget numbers and walked down the hall. I looked at each class photo from years passed and knew what happened to each student. Did they graduate from college; did they get a job? Where did they go to work?”

“This is the real life test on how well a school did; and frankly, how well a community did at raising their children.”