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Wisconsin Spotlight | Sept. 20, 2022

You don’t want to hear it. Your kid is fine, you tell yourself. You’re done with the nervous calls to teachers, politicians fighting on TV, the sense that no one’s making sure your child lives a better life than you did. You want a normal school year. I get it. But over the next three months, as the full weight of what Wisconsin’s leaders did to your children becomes clear, I ask you to listen closely.

Sept. 1 told you what you already sensed. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “report card” that tells us how our students are doing, showed the devastation that overextended school shutdowns, quarantines, and substitute teachers wrought on students.

Compared to 2020, the average 4th grader is three months behind in reading and six months behind in math. A struggling student is a whole year behind in both. Math collapsed 7 points in an instant; it took Wisconsin 16 years to rise just 3 points.

“You don’t mean my children! You mean Milwaukee and Madison.” Did pandemic grade inflation fool you, too? Fact: Wisconsin’s middle-class 4th graders ranked 27th in the nation in reading before the pandemic, and we’ll see how much farther we dropped when results come in October. We’ve been average for two decades, getting passed by Mississippi and Wyoming. That’s your kids losing out on scholarships, starting college behind, and earning less over their lives.

Milwaukee and Madison kids lost, too, betrayed by school boards, state Superintendent of Instruction Jill Underly, and Gov. Tony Evers. Six percent of black Milwaukeeans are on a college track right now and just 11 percent of Latino students are. Five out of 8 students test at the very lowest reading levels, blocking them from blue-collar jobs operating machinery and white-collar jobs handling paperwork. Fourteen percent of low-income kids in Madison can read proficiently, but their own school board blames the test and not themselves. Long after vaccines were out, kids stayed virtual and saw the world pass them by.

Other countries didn’t do this. Other states didn’t do this. Our teachers and children never stood a chance against a bureaucrat on a mission.

Gov. Evers is never going to get it. His big apology is $10 million more annually in a “no strategy, no goals, just vibes” reading fund. That’s less than half of what Mississippi spent per child around the plan that took them from laughingstock to leader. It’s the same timid leadership that put the average, small-town Wisconsin kid behind the average Latino student in Florida and Mississippi in reading. It’s Evers hiding under the covers again while Texas’ and Virginia’s black students got  two years ahead of ours in math. It’s Evers fearing union bosses more than he respects parents like you.

So, it’s up to you to get loud one last time. Here’s what to say.

Fix reading now. Copy what winning states did. Retrain teachers in back-to-basics phonics and pay them a bonus for it. Mandate that our teacher colleges train this way in the first place. Catch up kids before 4th grade so that they don’t pay for our mistakes every year afterward. Shrink the funding gap on beatable special needs like dyslexia. Be honest with parents and report what curriculum each school uses. End fake, inflated scores by aligning the state Forward Exam to NAEP. Quit threatening choice schools for doing their jobs. Stop vetoing solutions to get us out of 40th place.

Our broken leadership doesn’t want to hear it, either, but they’re at the end of a four-year lease in Madison. Our kids – and the memory of what we did for them – will face us for a lifetime.

Quinton Klabon is Senior Research Director at the Institute for Reforming Government

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