Senate passes reading readiness bill after debate on education decline

More assessments won’t reverse effects of funding cuts, Democrats say

By: - October 26, 2021 6:40 am
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Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

The party-line vote approving Senate Bill 454, establishing new reading assessments for grade schoolers in Wisconsin, was a foregone conclusion. 

Republican proponents of the assessments say they will reverse the decline in reading test scores for Wisconsin children and help close the state’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap between Black and white students. 

Democrats say more testing won’t prove anything that teachers and school officials don’t already know, and that more resources, not more assessments, are what schools need.

During the Monday floor session, the Senate rejected amendments offered by Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) that would have revived some of Gov. Tony Evers proposals to increase funding for schools, including one that would increase the state’s portion of funding for special education, a mandatory expense that has been consuming more and more of schools’ budgets, leading to program cuts in other areas.

Without such support, the additional reading assessments are meaningless, Larson said in a floor speech, comparing the added assessments to putting more fire alarms in a burning building, instead of putting out the fire. 

“That’s not our goal, to push children into special education,” Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), the author of the reading assessment bill, said in response to Larson. “This bill is bipartisan,” she added, pointing out that Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) voted for it in committee. Several rural schools in her district are already using the assessment, Bernier added, and none of them have needed more money to implement the program.

The bill prescribes reading assessments for 4-year-old kindergarten through second grade based on a program piloted in Mississippi — a fact that featured heavily in floor debate on Monday.

“I would say that if we are, as a state, going to be modeling our future in education on other states, I don’t think we should be modeling off Mississippi, which ranks 45th in eighth-grade reading,” said Larson.

Bernier shot back that Larson had “cherry picked” Mississippi’s low eighth-grade test scores because eighth graders “haven’t had the benefit of the program,” which is relatively new, and that Mississippi’s fourth graders, who have been getting the new reading assessments, “outperform Wisconsin students.”

“We have dropped to 26th in the nation. We used to be in the top five,” Bernier added, saying legislators should be ashamed of the decline in reading scores in Wisconsin. “We used to mock, and I guess we still do, Mississippi, because we’re not like them,” she added. “No, right now we’re worse than them.”

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In fact, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report card, Wisconsin and Mississippi score within one point of each other in average reading scores for fourth-grade public school students. Wisconsin fourth graders’ score of 220 is one point higher than Mississippi’s fourth graders, whose score of 219 is on par with the national average. But the two states have been moving in opposite directions recently, with Mississippi improving 20 points from a score of 199 since 1992, while Wisconsin has dropped four points from its 1992 score of 224.

Larson also pointed out that Mississippi makes more students repeat grades K-3 than any other state — a fact that could contribute to rising test scores, as older students retake the test.

Wisconsin’s educational decline, meanwhile, has not occurred in a vacuum. During the last decade the state drastically reduced resources for public schools, starting with former Gov. Scott Walker’s biggest cuts to school funding in state history in 2012. Gov. Tony Evers has twice proposed budgets that would dramatically increase school funding and restore the state’s commitment to fully fund special ed. But the Republican-led Legislature slashed those budgets. In the last round, the Legislature cut state funding for schools so much that the federal Department of Education warned the state it might lose more than $1.5 billion in federal funds because it didn’t make the minimum “maintenance of effort” standard, which requires states to maintain a constant level of investment in their public schools.

“It is disingenuous and it borders on open deception to try and pretend that there wasn’t the largest cut to education in Wisconsin history in 2011,” Larson said, adding that Republican policies ending collective bargaining for teachers and making further cuts to schools that had low scores on school report cards contributed to a teacher shortage and the decline in the quality of education.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach also recapped recent history during Monday’s debate. “There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when the nation looked to Wisconsin for K-12 education,” he said. “So now the idea that we look to Mississippi as a model kind of makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit. … How did we get there? How did we get there so quickly? We should be looking at that.”

“We used to have smaller classrooms and more teachers’ aids,” Erpenbach added. “Today we have larger class sizes, less aids, teachers trying to do more with less. This legislation doesn’t do anything about that.”

Sen. Van Wanggard (R-Racine) disagreed. When he went to school, there were 35 kids in a classroom, and those who couldn’t read got held back, he said. “I’ve seen it happen in our school system. They’re always crying about how they don’t have enough money, and they do.”

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) called the reading assessment bill “wonderful” “because it assesses each and every child.”

Darling mocked DPI for proposing another task force to address reading proficiency. “We have so many task forces,” she said.

“Yes, we have had a lot of task forces,” Larson shot back, “that the Legislature has ignored.” The bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding made a series of recommendations, he pointed out, “and the Legislature said, ‘Nope, we’re not going to do Jack Squat with that.” 

“That’s not a failure of our kids,” he added, “that’s a failure of the Legislature.”

Democrats in the Assembly education committee, which took up a version of the reading assessment bill last month, also raised questions about the list of company names in the bill, which specifies that the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) should approve certain name-brand tests including the Acadience reading assessment; FastBridge reading assessments; and the Renaissance Star Early Literacy assessment. 

It is not standard practice to name specific vendors in bills. “This clearly creates business opportunities for very specific organizations,” the Democrats wrote in a list of questions submitted to the committee. What happens, they asked, if the companies named in the bill go out of business or stop producing a particular test? That question, among many others, was not answered during a committee meeting in which all the Democrats walked out, citing the risk of contracting COVID-19 and Republicans’ refusal to wear masks.  

Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) said she was “torn” about supporting the bill, which, she said, she considered a worthy effort, but one that ignored existing programs, stepped on local control, and provided no additional resources to help improve reading. 

“I want to be able to go with you on this. There is nothing more important. If you don’t learn to read, you can’t read to learn,” Taylor said. But, she added, the program looked to her like an “unfunded mandate.” To Bernier’s assurance that more money could be added if it turned out that school districts needed it, Taylor replied, “I’m really afraid to believe that we’ll come back and put money in something.”

“There’s only so many times you can roll out the football and say ‘No this time have a kick — we really care about public education,’” Larson said. “We are not Charlie Brown. We have figured it out. We are not going down this path.”

After the party-line vote, Taylor said that Evers would likely veto the bill, because it did not come with any additional money. “So I ask that we come back and work on it,” she said, to get to a bipartisan deal. “I’m committed to rolling up my sleeves,” she added.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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