Minding the Gaps

Minding the Gaps is a monthly Wisconsin Public Education Network blog from Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) Board Vice President Jim Shaw examining educational gaps or educational inequity in Wisconsin.

Any traveler in London, England knows to “mind the gap,” to pay attention and be careful stepping from the “Tube” station platform to the train. The Tube’s gaps are dangerous, and ignoring the gaps can result in serious injury. In Wisconsin education, achievement, funding, opportunity, income and economic gaps are even more dangerous. Wisconsin’s gaps can and do injure our public schools, children, communities and state. Children and communities that are well-educated thrive; those that are not suffer and decline. This blog minds the gaps between the reality and the promise of public education.

The reality is many children are not receiving an excellent education in Wisconsin.  Our state has the widest disparities between Black and white students, and has some of the most segregated schools in the nation. The education gaps are not only in learning but in funding and support of public schools. Wisconsin is the worst in the nation in funding special education and English Language Learner programs, and spends below the national average on education. Over the past 10 years, Wisconsin has become the leader in increasing funding for private school vouchers, while providing the smallest increase in funding for public education and teacher compensation. 

Wisconsin’s opportunity, income, and socioeconomic gaps are even worse. In a recent Wallet Hub study, Wisconsin ranked last in Black-white economic equality, including gaps in median annual household income, unemployment rate, labor force participation rate, homeownership rate, poverty rate, homeless rate, share of executives, and share of unsheltered homeless. Wisconsin is the worst state in protecting the well-being of Black children. Wisconsin is an economically segregated state with poverty rates ranging from 17.2% in Milwaukee County and 14% in Eau Claire and Chippewa (South) counties to 3.6% in Washington and Ozaukee Counties. High poverty schools (60% of children qualified for FRDL) exist in both rural and urban school districts, and when the state fails to invest in meeting the needs of students in poverty, these students do not receive an education equal to that of their peers.  

The promise of Wisconsin public education, as written in our State Constitution, is equal opportunity “which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable.”  Public schools are the heart of our communities and are the institution that unites us around our children and future. Wisconsin public schools are among the best in the nation, with high graduation and college admission rates. The University of Wisconsin is consistently ranked among the best public universities in the world.  Both the University of Wisconsin and Technical College systems are highly regarded and readily accessible.  The Wisconsin Idea that public education should benefit all citizens expresses Wisconsin’s long-standing commitment to quality public education as an investment and a solution to the problems confronting citizens.   

Most of the gaps between the reality and the promise of public education are not created in schools.  Most gaps are created by poverty, discrimination and economic inequality in racially isolated, economically distressed neighborhoods; by poor quality healthcare, low life expectancy, high unemployment, and incarceration rates. More gaps may be created by the pandemic, and all of these gaps are exacerbated by policy, budgets and legislation that make them wider, at a time when the state has the resources to narrow them. No matter the origin or the nature of the gaps, public schools have a responsibility to confront, address, and overcome them. No matter the reality, public schools have a promise to keep. Mind the Gaps!

Dr. Jim Shaw is a retired educator, former district administrator, UW professor, education consultant and author. He is currently the Vice-Chair of the Board of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools.

About the author: Wisconsin Public Education Network

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