News about our economy reinforces just how tough it is in Wisconsin and our nation. A recent study showed that one-third of families are falling out of the middle class. So many families are struggling, and the number of kids in poverty coming through the school door continues to grow.
I’ve seen it in the classrooms I’ve visited to kick off the school year. Classes are larger, taught by far fewer experienced teachers, and there is genuine concern for the future of our public schools. This year’s budget balancing was difficult. Next year will be worse.
There is no question that the loss of more than $800 million in state aid and $1.6 billion in revenue authority as a result of the 2011-13 state budget will make our schools different. Districts balance their budgets every year, but the price this year has never been higher. Many of Wisconsin’s public schools are in economic peril. While states like Massachusetts and Maryland invested in education, Wisconsin’s biennial budget made the largest cuts to public schools in state history.
The path to prosperity is paved by educating our children. We must move beyond the harsh rhetoric of the past few months and begin the slow process of rebuilding. It will take action, not just words. It will take a sincere investment in our public schools and commitment to public education to undo the damage.
Wisconsin is an education leader in many areas. But, despite nation-leading graduation rates, one in 10 of our high school students drops out. The diminished life chances for these young people are simply unkind. We must do more for them, for all our students. High school graduates have more earning power and more opportunity than students who drop out.
We must ensure that every student graduates ready for college and careers. That means our graduates need the skills to be successful in job training or entry-level college coursework without remediation. It means high school graduates have reading, writing, and computation skills that support the teamwork, problem solving, and critical thinking so many employers say they want.
But not every student wants a college degree. Some have different goals and aspirations, which is good. Our schools need to capture student interest and respond to varied learning styles so all students are successful. We waste too many human resources when we have almost 7,000 students who don’t graduate each year.
I speak with urgency about the need to work together, to find common ground. Wisconsin has been slipping in reading achievement. Though we have many differences, I’m working with the governor on the Read to Lead Task Force to improve early reading literacy. We need better assessments that provide quick feedback that can help teachers tailor instruction to student needs. Wisconsin is part of three groups developing new assessments.
Also, we’ve been working on educator effectiveness with teachers and school leaders to ensure that evaluations and staff development meet our goals: to ensure kids have quality teachers in their classrooms and quality educators in their schools. These are areas of common ground that can begin to restore trust and repair the damage that’s been done to public education.
Wisconsin is at a crossroads. If we stay enmeshed in the past, if we continue cutting funds for our public schools, our prosperity will surely suffer. If we invest in public education, the children in our schools will be able to create a future that is much, much brighter.
Tony Evers is Wisconsin's superintendent of public instruction.