Wisconsin Earns Top-Five Status on ‘Education Reform Idol’

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Wisconsin has been busy making changes to its public education. That work hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently held their “Ed Reform Idol” event, which combined an expert panel and audience voting to determine which state led the nation in education reform in 2011. Five states were chosen as finalists, including national leaders like Florida and Indiana. Thanks to changes that ended seniority-based staffing decisions and the creation of a design team to implement a state-level school accountability system, Wisconsin earned a spot in the top five.

Indiana eventually won the title of “Reformiest” state, but Wisconsin’s presence did not go unnoticed. Ryan Murray, the Policy and Legislative Affairs Director at the Governor’s office, joined the panel as the state’s representative, pleading the Badger State’s case for the title alongside participants such as Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett and Senator Peggy Lehner of Ohio. Though Wisconsin finished fifth in the voting, it was an encouraging sign for a state whose reform had fallen stagnant after being an innovative force in education reform throughout the 1990s.

The panel discussed the state’s changes, which keyed in mainly on collective bargaining reform, at length. Wisconsin’s focus on restoring power to public school boards was lauded for its role in eliminating seniority-based layoffs and allowing local districts the power to create savings through better practices in contract negotiations. Other initiatives, such as the Read to Lead program, the upcoming school accountability system, and the expansion of choice and charter schools helped boost the Badger State’s reputation as a rising reformer.

These reforms are a major change from where the state stood less than a month earlier. Wisconsin had earned a reputation as one of America’s shining beacons for educational innovation in the 1990s. This was primarily in part of the institution of the country’s first modern school choice program (the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program) and a widespread focus on charter schools. However, this commitment faded as years wore on.

By the 2000s, charter and choice growth had stagnated. National groups like Teach for America and KIPP Academies had trouble gaining a foothold in cities where their services could help thousands of students. As a result, Wisconsin’s educational growth remained static while other states, including reformers like Florida, caught up. Now, innovation and dynamic education appear to be headed back on the right track – a change recognized by the Fordham Institute’s competition.

Indiana’s win comes on the strength of major changes to their operation of public instruction. The state recently enacted, and then expanded, what will eventually become the nation’s largest school choice program. Other reforms that put power back in the hands of parents, including transparent teacher evaluations, a modest merit pay system, the end of seniority-based layoffs, and district-wide school grading boosted Indiana’s case. This platter of sweeping change made the state a runaway winner in the eyes of both the judges and voters.

The Hoosier State’s development may help provide Wisconsin with a road map of where to go next. Indiana’s progress came thanks to examples learned in Florida, a state that has often been considered as the ideal standard in sweeping reform. However, even Florida gleaned examples from Wisconsin to begin with – making this commitment to change a return to the Badger State’s roots.

Education reform is an area where Wisconsin was formerly a titan, and the strides the state made continue to resonate across the country. Other states have built from this example and improved on a system that needed tweaking. Now these improvements are coming back to Wisconsin – and the residents that stand to benefit from it are students everywhere.