The federal government will expand its sanction of Milwaukee schools this year, according to a report published in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 38 schools currently receiving federal government aid for low income students will be hit with cuts to that aid. The Department of Education calls these schools “identified for improvement” and refers to the slashing of budgets as the result of “escalating academic standards”. Worded in this fashion, it is possible to think that the cuts are suitable measures to take in the face of poor performance. After all, the government set standards and the schools failed to comply, isn’t some punishment in order?
In a word, no. These schools faced an arbitrary increase in standards, a reduction in funding and a failing plan for urban centers across this country. The failing grade goes to the Bush Administration, so why are Wisconsin citizens coming home with the bad report card?
When No Child Left Behind (NCLB) began, the government set stringent standards for schools monitored by standardized testing and enforced by the threat of cuts in precious federal funds. The ‘carrot’ in this program was supposed to be the promise of more federal funding to start—low-income districts would receive targeted grants that would help them compete with school districts whose property tax bases were higher. Those funds never materialized. Instead, Wisconsin got an elaborate and arbitrary testing system which had more districts spending time teaching to the test and less time learning—a problem that is worse in urban schools. Let’s be clear, this isn’t a problem with students. The students aren’t failing. This isn’t a problem with teachers, the teachers aren’t failing. The schools, students and communities in Wisconsin are making the best of a bad situation. These schools depended upon a solemn promise from the Bush Administration and the then-Republican Congress, a promise that was repeatedly broken according to a report published by the One Wisconsin Institute in 2007.
Wisconsin got a punitive scheme designed not to help students to succeed but to cut federal budgets in order to justify tax breaks for the rich. Wisconsin got shorted over $600 MILLION from the federal government—a shortfall between promised funds and delivered grants that grows wider every year. Wisconsin got left behind.
Now, with teachers forced into teaching to the test by the federal government and districts cutting already tight budgets, we are seeing the impact of this disastrous policy. 82 schools in MPS not making “adequate yearly progress”. 38 facing sanctions. 56 requiring improvement. Each of these schools relies on Title I programming, which affords federal grant money to children and schools in high poverty areas. Each of these schools was depending upon those funds in order to provide an education to the children in their charge. And each school got shortchanged by No Child Left Behind. A $45 million shortfall in 2002. $56 million in 2004. A million here and a million there; pretty soon you’re talking about real money.
And this wasn’t just any set of grants. Title I grants are directed at school districts whose property tax base is too low to support schools alone. Underfunded schools cause people to leave the area, property values decline and the problem gets worse. The solution is to draw funds from a broad net and target districts with disadvantaged students. The schools get better and people are more willing to live in the district. Property values go up and the school is able to support its students more fully. That is a virtuous cycle. Break it and low-income neighborhoods will stay at the same level of education.
No Child Left Behind cut those grants and ratcheted up the testing requirements. Schools that relied on these Title I funds couldn’t keep up with the new standards and testing provisions and now they face the prospect of future cuts in the grants NCLB didn’t already slash. That is a vicious cycle, and one with long-lasting consequences for students in MPS and across the state.