Rewarding Failure

Three of the absolute worst school districts in Wisconsin are rewarding their abysmal performance by giving themselves massive raises. As Dan O’Donnell reports, taxpayers should be outraged by how badly these districts are failing their students.


June 1, 2023
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell


Only in government can one so consistently and spectacularly fail upward.  Almost in unison, two of the most troubled public school districts in Wisconsin gave themselves sizable raises while a third is considering it even though it lacks the funds to do so.

Last week, the Wauwatosa School District approved a 12 percent raise for all teachers, even though just 50.6 percent of their students are at or above grade level in English language arts and 49.1 percent are at grade level in mathematics.  Roughly half have either a basic or below basic understanding of these core subjects.

@DanODonnellShow - Tosa teachers will receive a 12% raise even though roughly half of their students are BELOW grade level in English Language Arts & Math Click To Tweet


A staggering 56 percent of the district’s African American students are below basic in mathematics, while nearly that many (46 percent) are below basic in language arts.  Would Wauwatosa care to explain why every single one of its teachers deserves a 12 percent raise when just 12 percent of their black students can do math at grade level?

Worse, these numbers have fallen precipitously over the past four years.  In the 2018-2019 school year, 16.8 percent of black students were at grade level in math and 19.3 percent were at grade level in English.  Overall, 53.3 percent of Wauwatosa students were performing where they should be in language arts while 52.5 percent rated as proficient in mathematics. 

@DanODonnellShow - The 8% raise for MPS teachers is significant because it exceeds the 7.8 percent of African American MPS students who are at grade level in English language arts. Click To Tweet


Every single test score in every single demographic has declined, but teacher pay is suddenly spiking.  Why?  Why are teachers who have failed their students so spectacularly suddenly deserving of such a big pay hike?

It certainly wasn’t because of the safe schools that they maintain.  So many brawls have broken out at Wauwatosa East and West High Schools over the past year that parents no longer feel as though their children are safe there.

“This is terrifying that we are living this all the time,” vented one parent after a woman broke into Wauwatosa West to fight with students in late February.  “Nobody cares that our kids are so used to the violence at this point.”

That violence grew so extreme that even West’s principal became a victim; a student viciously punched him in the head during a particularly nasty confrontation.  In the first semester alone, the district sent out 10 expulsion notices (mostly because of fighting) but expelled just two students.  Throughout the entire 2021-2022 school year, just three expulsion notices were sent out and one student was expelled.

The schools aren’t safe, and the students aren’t performing at grade level.  Sounds like the perfect time for a big raise!

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) concurs.  Despite truly abysmal test scores, truancy rates, and building safety, the district is planning to spend $50 million to give every single staff member an 8 percent raise.  This number is significant as it exceeds the 7.8 percent of African American MPS students who are at grade level in English language arts.  A downright shocking 4.2 percent are at grade level in math.  80.1 percent are below basic.

Overall, 15.7 percent of MPS students read at grade level.  10.5 percent are at grade level in math.  One might be tempted to at this point make a joke about how only MPS math could make this add up to an 8 percent raise for the people teaching these kids, but this crisis-level student performance is far too distressing to laugh about.

99.7 percent of Wisconsin’s school districts score better than MPS in getting students on track to graduation.  36.6 percent of MPS students were chronically absent from school (meaning they missed more than 10 percent of school days).  And violence has gotten so bad that teachers are speaking out after suffering brutal attacks at the hands of students and their parents.

“If I can’t feel safe in my classroom, or in my school, how can I be an effective teacher?” said Angela Harris, the chair of the Black Educators Caucus in the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, who was assaulted by a parent while on bus duty earlier this school year.

“I don’t want what happened to me to happen to any other teacher, and the only way that we’re going to stop this from happening is by addressing the culture, climate and safety that exists within our MPS schools,” she added.

If the culture is so rotten in MPS and safety is so neglected, then why are those responsible for both deserving of an 8 percent raise?  In what line of work other than public service would such utter failure be not only tolerated but rewarded?

Madison Teachers, Inc., the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) union, is asking for an even larger 8.5 percent raise, despite the fact that its student performance is almost as terrifyingly poor as MPS’s.  Far fewer than 8.5 percent of MMSD students—6.5 percent to be precise—are at grade level in math.  Just 8.8 percent can read at grade level. 

Only 39.5 percent of all MMSD students are at grade level in English and 35.4 percent are at grade level in math.  More than 20 percent are chronically absent from school.  Just two students—not two percent, two students—successfully completed an Advanced Placement course during the 2020-2021 school year.

In-school violence is so bad that in a recent survey, students said that they felt “unsafe in hallways, common areas, bathrooms and buses” and that there were “too many fights” that they believed were the result of a culture of “no consequences.”

“I want to send my children to our neighborhood school, but not when disruptive, swearing, sexually harassing students are sent right back to class without consequence,” said one parent.

“I’ve seen a lot of students pushing, shoving, and verbally harassing each other during passing time,” added a student.

“I am concerned about the amount of alcohol and drug use happening inside the school building,” said another.

Rampant drug use, constant fights, and plummeting test scores hardly seems like the learning environment that would earn those responsible for maintaining it a reward, but this is government, where one can fail their way into a substantial raise.  MMSD has countered the union’s demand with a 3.5 percent pay raise, but even that seems too high for a district that is utterly incapable of educating its students.

Milwaukee and Wauwatosa, though, have no qualms about rewarding themselves for dreadful performance, and while taxpayers may (and should) feel ripped off, it’s their children who are paying the most.