We can strengthen public schools by providing all kids the opportunities they need to learn

This is a guest blog by Angelina Cruz, a teacher in the Racine Unified School District.

We live in an era in which the perceptions of public education have been formed based upon political ideologues bent on reform by means of accountability measures. These accountability measures in large part tie both school and teacher performance to high-stakes standardized tests. While it is reasonable that there be expectations established for teacher performance, it is not OK to impose punitive measures upon those performing in the most challenging environments with variables that extend beyond the classroom which impact learning.

Recently, a non-partisan think tank, the Forward Institute, released their findings in a study examining school achievement and poverty in public and charter schools. A key finding is that poverty is closely linked to academic achievement, as measured by high-stakes standardized testing, in the state of Wisconsin.

According to the statistical analysis, charter schools, long lauded as the solution to the ills of the public school system, actually fare worse in addressing the needs of our most disadvantaged populations. Statewide, public school students from low socioeconomic backgrounds actually outperform their peers in charter school settings. This study places public education within the context of the 2011-13 Wisconsin biennial budget (Act 32).

In another recent study, “Making Matters Worse,” University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers found that students in poor districts have borne the brunt of state budget cuts. This budget directly cut $792 million of state aid to school districts. Additionally, it reduced the revenue in Wisconsin school districts by 5.5 percent, which resulted in a $1.6 billion loss statewide. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 97 percent of districts received less aid and the impact was greatest on districts with the highest poverty rates.

With Racine as ground zero for charter school expansion, the findings that public schools best serve communities in which poverty is endemic begs the question as to whether or not we need to re-examine the merits of diverting taxpayer dollars away from public schools and routing them to private, unaccountable schools. Despite the fact the taxpayer funding of voucher schools with no accountability to an elected school board relies upon a reduction to state aid to a school district, their growth has only been encouraged by questionable public policy. This is especially troubling, given the report’s findings regarding the performance of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Forward Institute has found “that even when statistically controlling for the differences in poverty (e.g. ED enrollment) between public and charter schools, public schools perform better on report card scores than charter schools. In essence, when “equalizing” the degree of poverty between public and charter schools, public schools have higher report card scores than charter schools. Further, this analysis indicates that ED enrollment has a significant effect on report card scores.” According to the “Comparative Analysis of the Racine Unified School District” report released last month by the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research entity, a staggering 60.7 percent of our students are living in poverty. Not only do we have a disproportionately high number of economically disadvantaged students in Racine as compared to the rest of the state, the educational settings in which these students have the best opportunity for success are being severely underfunded.

As a public educator, the results of this report come as no surprise. They do, however, raise a red flag regarding the current discourse about public education. While the statistical analysis shows that teachers in public schools have been more successful educating our neediest children, we are the most likely to be blamed for the failures of the larger system. It is disingenuous, at best, to place the impetus for improving the public school system solely on the shoulders of educators. Given the tremendous impact poverty has upon educational outcomes, perhaps it is time for policymakers to acknowledge the realities challenging low performing schools and supply solutions that redress economic injustice. It’s time to reinvest in public schools and focus on what works: strengthening neighborhood schools, teacher training and enhanced opportunities for students.

Angelina Cruz is a Racine elementary school teacher with nine years of classroom teaching experience. She is also the Political Action Chair of the Racine Education Association.

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