Today, as the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction issued its annual school and school-district report cards, a public-school advocacy group released its own ratings — grading state legislators.
The report cards, created by the Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN), assess lawmakers in each of five categories based on their most recent budget votes. The categories include the overall K-12 budget, special education, bilingual/bicultural needs, mental health and public funding for private schools.
“We need to connect the dots between student needs and legislative performance,” said Heather DuBois Bourenane of WPEN in a press call announcing the report cards’ release. She emphasized that the point of the report cards was to “illuminate the policy more than the people and their votes.”
“We hope we can get to a Wisconsin where every lawmaker exceeds expectations,” DuBois Bourenane added.
Because the report cards focus solely on legislators’ votes on the state budget, the actual grades are not a surprise. The budget passed on a nearly straight party-line vote. All of the Senate report cards are available here, and all of the Assembly report cards are available here.
Democrats got high scores on the report card, while Republicans received low scores.
State report cards for schools and school districts became mandatory in 2011 — the same year then-Gov. Scott Walker and the legislature made the largest cuts to school funding in state history. So, as WPEN points out in its press release, those cuts yielded predictable results.
“How well a school does on a report card is often closely connected to factors like revenue limits, the number of students living in poverty, the number of English-language learners and the resources available for serving students with disabilities,” states the WPEN press release.
“What the report cards do not reveal is the fact that Wisconsin is last in the nation in state support for students with disabilities and last in the nation in state support for English language learners,” it continues. “The state does not live up to its commitment to support student mental needs and we lack a coherent state policy to support children challenged by poverty. We can trace these failures back to the statehouse, not the classroom.”
UW education professor Julie Underwood, a member of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on Public School Funding, added that the point of the report cards is to “focus on the peril that public schools are in.”
Underwood and DuBois Bourenane said they hope that the report cards will prompt members of the public to have “open and honest conversations with lawmakers.”
Rating the schools & districts
DPI reports that the percent of public and private schools — as well as public school districts — that meet expectations on these report cards remain high.
Under the legislatively required calculations, 87% of the rated schools met or exceeded expectations, including 96% of Wisconsin’s 421 public school districts.
Private schools that receive taxpayer-funded vouchers, known as ‘choice schools’ were also rated for the fourth year in a row, but the legislature designates separate, more limited criteria for evaluation for those schools. However private schools that receive state funding can opt in to receiving a full report card.
For this 2018-19 year 322 private choice schools received report cards and 106 opted to receive all the feedback. The legislature requires that all 2,112 public schools be graded.
The grading system is based on five stars, rather than A – F grades. Five stars are given to schools and districts that exceed expectations. Schools that fail to meet expectations get only one star. The grades can be used to then assess and target where improvements can be made in the following categories:
- Student achievement
- School growth
- Closing gaps between student groups
- Measure of students being on track for post-secondary readiness
That final category includes graduation and attendance rates, 3rd grade English language arts achievement and 8th grade math achievement.