The MacIver Institute’s Top Ten Education Stories of 2016

January 3, 2016

by Ola Lisowski
MacIver Institute Research Associate

[Madison, Wis…] It was a busy year in education. From brand new report cards, reports that offered interesting new peeks into our education system, to a vexed turnaround program, we’re counting up the top ten most important education stories for you, the MacIver reader.

We’ll start at number 10 and work our way to the single most important education story of the year. First up…

10. School Districts Skim Millions from Local Taxpayers, Some Blame School Choice

For our first major education story of the year, we go back to February and the end of the legislative session. The MacIver Institute broke this story on public school districts raising local property taxes to cover “losses” from the expansion of the school choice program. According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo, 115 school districts raised local property taxes more than the amount they lost to choice schools, and raised taxes by a total of $19.8 million statewide. This figure is $3.7 million more than the districts lost in state aid.

From the perspective of taxpayer advocates, if a child leaves a public school district and that district no longer incurs expenses to educate that child, the district shouldn’t need to raise taxes to make up for “lost” aid. Fewer kids served, less money for the district. It’s that simple – successful business owners know that this is the way life works, but in the vortex that is public education spending, this point somehow gets lost.

Racine Unified School District (RUSD) raised local property taxes the most, by $5,580,980 in 2015, while it lost only $4,164,500 as a result of students leaving for the choice program. As a result, RUSD made a net profit of $1,416,480.

Legislators got word of this and in a last-minute fix, passed an amendment to make it clear that when a student transfers to a choice school, public schools can levy for the amount lost in state aid and no more.

When Democratic legislators cried out against the solution, saying the bill would “gut millions more from public schools,” Rep. Mary Czaja (R-Irma) had some choice words for the legislators.

“I hate to say this, but I guess math is not your strong suit. We are not cutting schools,” Czaja said. “We’re allowing the schools to levy for the exact amount that will be transferred to the voucher. Exact amount. So the schools will have enough dollars coming in and enough dollars going out. No more dollars will be taken out of the school districts than what they would normally have. Because for every child that they are counting in the levy, that exact amount goes back out. They won’t be educating those children. So I think, I think you have to have a more honest answer to the citizens of the state of Wisconsin. Public schools will be held harmless.”

9. The Every Student Succeeds Act, America’s New Federal Education Law

Just about one year ago, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law with bipartisan support, making it the first major federal education law since 2011’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB). To make a long story short, from a small government perspective, ESSA is a surprisingly good law coming from the Obama administration. Where NCLB created massive federal overreach into education, ESSA brought the reins back and handed them to the states.

ESSA allows states to create their own rules and standards on education – now called “state plans” – and while it does not spend much time dictating what those rules are, it requires states to have guidelines. State plans must include evidence-based interventions and strategies to improve schools. In ESSA, “strict flexibility” is the name of the game. Of course, such openness had already led to differences in interpretation, which will likely cause some battles in 2017.

This past summer, Wisconsin’s DPI held listening sessions for the general public and for educators in order to gather input from the public on testing, achievement gaps, state monitoring, and other important education issues.

DPI will submit a state plan to the feds some time around March 2017. You can bet that the MacIver Institute will be on the issue – stay tuned.

8. WEAC Membership

Since our inception, the MacIver Institute has diligently reported on union membership in the state, especially in our post-Act 10 world. As many of you may remember, Act 10 allowed Wisconsin’s public employees the freedom to decide whether or not they want to join a union and pay dues. Unions must also now hold annual recertification votes.

The result? Membership in the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) has dropped by 58 percent since 2011. This is in line with a national trend, but the drop in membership is larger than that of any other state. Almost 5,100 members left WEAC in just the last year. Before the passage of Act 10, WEAC had nearly 100,000 members. Today, the union membership stands at 36,074.

Survey says: people don’t want to be forced to pay for things they didn’t ask for. We’d also argue that while WEAC’s membership has more than halved in five years, they now have an opportunity to reorganize themselves and prove their value in the 21st century, or risk losing even more members. It’s simple competition, and the ball’s in their court.

7. University of Wisconsin Update: Another Tuition Freeze in Our Future?

Four years into the University of Wisconsin System’s popular tuition freeze, Gov. Walker indicated that he’d be open to another two-year tuition freeze in the coming budget. Great news for our taxpayers and families looking to send off their kids to get a great education at a great price.

To remind our dear readers of the state of tuition before Walker’s freeze – tuition had increased by 118 percent in the decade before the freeze. The average UW student has saved a whopping $6,000 as a result of the freeze. These are significant amounts of money that truly help Wisconsinites who are just trying to get an education.

As for the UW System itself, their 2017-19 budget proposal asks for $42.5 million in new general public revenue and does not increase tuition for Wisconsin residents. Looks like this battle is all but won for the Governor and ultimately, for Wisconsin taxpayers.

6. Forward Exam/ACT results

Wisconsin’s public school students took three different standardized tests in three years. This year, the Forward Exam made its debut, and whether you like the test or hate the test, you probably agree that we shouldn’t change the test at least for a while. Why? Well, in the last three years of data, it’s tough to compare proficiency rates across different exams. Education officials and honest data wonks alike will tell you that it’s not a strong or significant comparison because of the differences between exams. And so, Wisconsin’s students have suffered from a lack of year-to-year comparisons in the form of test scores, which is why other indicators – such as remedial education and graduation rates – are useful to lean on.

So other than the fact that we shouldn’t compare this exam to the others, how did students do? Not great. Nearly six out of ten Wisconsin students are performing below grade level. Statewide, 42.5 percent of students were proficient in English while 42.3 percent were proficient in math. Students fared the best at science, with 50.1 percent having achieved proficiency.

It’s a sorry tale when the fact that half the students passed in science – supposedly now the state’s best subject – becomes the highlight of the release. Half? Half. The disconnect between plugged-in education officials and average Wisconsin citizens who know that half is not a good rate of success is real, and it’s an issue we’ve been going back to all year.

Within MPS, 19.7 percent of students achieved English proficiency, and 14.9 achieved math proficiency. Of black students, just 7.5 percent achieved math proficiency while 36 percent of white students fared the same. In a perhaps surprising reveal, achievement gaps between white and black students at Madison Metropolitan were bigger than the gaps in Milwaukee.

The true highlight of the release for MPS: the fact that older students did better than younger students in English Language Arts, reversing a long-static trend that still exists statewide. That achievement must be highlighted and it must be replicated in more schools across the state.

On the ACT, students scored an average of 20.1 out of 36, a small increase from the previous average of 20. Students achieved an average English score of 18.6, down from 19.3. In math, students achieved a 20.1, a small increase from last year’s average of 20.

As we’ll highlight later in the list, choice students did outstanding on this exam. Students in all three parental choice programs, who are primarily low-income, outperformed their full-income peers in public schools across the state. A system that’s getting less money per kid with better results? I’m interested. And as the data shows, so is the public – but more on that later!

5. Return of the School Report Cards

DPI’s public school report cards provide a glimpse into how schools and districts around the state are faring, but as we’ve covered throughout the year, the report cards often show one thing when the situation on the ground may be totally different. This year, the report cards returned after having skipped a year. The big news was that MPS fell off the list of failing districts and was replaced by Racine United and four smaller districts – more on that later!

Fifty-four districts and 329 schools are ranked as significantly exceeding expectations. Five districts and 99 schools are ranked as failing to meet expectations. I’ve written extensively about the issues with the report cards and such complicated and convoluted rankings, but ultimately, it’s important to have such accountability and feedback so that parents actually know how their local schools are faring.

Unfortunately, the reality on the ground in many of these schools doesn’t reflect what their formal rankings say. One needn’t go much further than MPS to see this – again, more on that later – but it’s true in other parts of the state. Racine United, for example, the largest district to have been added to the “failing” list, sent 33 percent of its graduates needing remediation upon entry at the UW. That number is a whopping 56 percent at MPS, and yet one of the districts is “failing” while the other “meets few expectations.”

4. Remedial Education Report: Is High School Education in Wisconsin Failing?

One study that we kept going back to this year was the Remedial Course Report released by the University of Wisconsin System in October. The report revealed – for the first time – the extent of the remedial education problem in the state.

The report was prompted by a new law championed by Rep. John Jagler (R-Watertown), which required the UW System to list all public high schools that sent more than six graduates into the System needing remedial math or English. Jagler discovered that 20 percent of all freshmen at the UW System required such coursework – which counts for zero credit and costs full tuition – but the UW could not tell him from which in-state high schools those students came. The remedial course report changed that.

We now know that in 2015, 160 schools graduated senior classes where more than 10 percent of students needed math remediation at the UW System. Twelve schools – nearly 7 percent of the list – graduated classes where 50 percent or more – half! – of their graduates needed math remediation when they arrived on campus.

The report was able to take a new datapoint and make it clear to the public that no matter what our Department of Public Instruction says, there are schools all over the state that simply aren’t fulfilling their duties. What’s more, the report revealed some serious dissonance when several schools touted as high achieving were shown to be sending a lot of kids off to college who didn’t pass their entrance-level math exams. Rufus King High School, for example, was named 8th best high school in the state by U.S. News and World Report, but one-third of King graduates needed math remediation. Reagan High School was named 2nd best high school in the state by U.S. News and World Report but sent nearly 43 percent of graduates to college needing math remediation.

Not only was this one of the biggest and most important education stories of the year, but it was seriously underreported. Have no fear, the MacIver Institute will stay on top of this issue.

3. Choice Programs Are Still Helping Students Get a Better Education

This year, nothing terribly new or groundbreaking happened with the choice programs in Wisconsin. The three programs – Milwaukee Parental Choice, Racine Parental Choice, and Wisconsin (statewide) Parental Choice – educate a stunning 32,350 students. Almost 30 percent of all families statewide exercise some type of choice in Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, over 80 percent of students attend a school of their choosing. The programs certainly have their political enemies, but the participation of Wisconsin families in choice makes their position pretty clear: Wisconsinites want choice. Polling supports this fact, but more importantly, the growth of student and school participation makes clear that the demand is there.


And one last time, for the record – no, school choice is not a program for the ultra-rich to get private school educations that they otherwise would have been able to afford. All three programs are income-limited. If the state wants to start increasing or even removing the income caps, that’s a separate debate – but as it stands today, school choice is giving primarily disadvantaged children the opportunity to get a great education. Though the anti-choice forces are strong: if you ask some people, choice’s expansion is “heartbreaking.” I wonder how the kids getting the better education feel.

And getting a great education they are. Without much fanfare, choice students did great on standardized tests this year, beating even their non-economically disadvantaged public school peers on ACT scores. On the Badger Exam results from back in March, students in school choice programs outperformed their peers in public schools in nearly every category. In Milwaukee, income-limited choice students outperformed kids at MPS by every single proficiency measure. Not every school is perfect, but this system is giving students options. That matters.

2. The Ever-Troubled Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program

Education news in the summer of 2016 can be summed up by one frustrating acronym: OSPP. The Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, championed by Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), was established with the intent of turning around up to five of the poorest-performing schools within MPS per year. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele appointed Mequon-Thiensville Superintendent Demond Means to the post of OSPP Commissioner, and all was well. Sort of. Not really. Well, they said things were going swimmingly and they were looking forward to working together and all that other fancy press release talk but then – surprise! – Means resigned, citing the “toxic” atmosphere around education.

To be fair to Means, the man was between a rock (the MPS school board) and a hard place (the teachers’ union, which wanted nothing to do with this plan from the beginning). It was never going to be an easy job. But after all that – the spinning of wheels and protests and proposals and counter-proposals – someone still needs to help these kids. It’s a moral demand as well as a legal demand – ESSA requires states to intervene in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.

These days, the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program is on hold because no school districts technically qualify for it anymore. Does that mean there are no schools in Wisconsin who could seriously benefit from different types of leadership and radical new approaches to education? Of course not. But as of today, the state isn’t working to help those kids. Which brings us to our next point and the most important education story of the year…

1. Milwaukee Public Schools Taken off List of Failing School Districts

The biggest education news story of the year, without a doubt, came out of Milwaukee when the Department of Public Instruction announced that MPS would no longer be classified as a failing school district on the new report cards. Pack it in everyone, we did it! Wait, what’s that? Is it the sound of bureaucratic doublespeak whooshing by? After all, only 19.5 percent of MPS students are proficient in English and only 14.9 are proficient in math. Of black students at MPS, only 7.5 percent are proficient in math.

With numbers like that, how can one possibly proclaim that MPS is succeeding? The district is failing the tens of thousands of kids missing out on a good education while the education bureaucrats pat themselves on the back. But as I’ve written over and over again this year – don’t hold your breath for MPS to serve up some much-needed self-criticism.

Ultimately, the story of MPS moving off the list is one of cognitive dissonance. More than 25,000 kids are at schools at MPS which are still individually classified as failing schools. The district itself managed to swoop by, a miraculous 2.4 out of 100 points above the cutoff for failing schools. As it turns out, “fake news” isn’t just a potential issue in our media but also in our government institutions, how they work, and what they tell the public. For the truth, dig deep and start downloading those excel spreadsheets and dig through the numbers yourself – you’ll be shocked, just as I was when I began covering education.

Or, you know, keep reading the MacIver Institute’s coverage for the latest education news as we head into 2017!