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Passing Notes: State-Level Ideas Build Momentum For Milwaukee Schools

Rachel Morello
A view from the WUWM recording studios

Every few weeks, WUWM education reporter Rachel Morello scans through her notes and gives us the scoop about what’s happening in schools around the greater Milwaukee area. Test your knowledge of headlines big and small with her news quiz!

Many Milwaukee-area schools are halfway through the first semester – which means lots of folks about town recently attended parent-teacher conferences. Hopefully, everybody is refreshed and ready for another round of the news quiz as we barrel toward the holiday break.  

Next Steps For the UW System

A few weeks ago, the buzz around the University of Wisconsin System focused on President Ray Cross’ plan to “restructure” UW schools.

The “hallmark” move is basically a bunch of mini-mergers; Cross wants the system’s four-year schools to absorb nearby two-year UW Colleges. For instance, the example we keep hearing about in Milwaukee is that UWM would likely take on UW-Waukesha and UW-Washington County as “satellite” campuses of sorts.

Before any elements of that plan can be set into motion, one crucial step still needs to happen – a step set to happen next week. What is that step?

Credit digital_3rd_eye, Flickr
UW-Madison campus

Despite the fact that President Cross’ plan is pretty controversial – even among individual UW school chancellors – the idea is moving full steam ahead.

But not without approval first by the UW Board of Regents. The group that governs the UW System is scheduled to vote at their monthly meeting Thursday to approve Cross’ plan, mergers and all.

Even at this early stage, Cross’ restructuring plan is pretty comprehensive. The move is supposed to help boost enrollment at state schools, and cut costs for students.

In a letter to the UWM campus community, Chancellor Mark Mone explained that a vote of approval by the Regents will kick his to-do list into gear – including visits to the two-year campuses, as well as engagement with faculty, staff, students, and governance groups:

“There are many unknowns at this point, including our future state for academic programs and offerings, how to support student success academically and financially, the size and composition of our faculty and staff, how to preserve and strengthen UWM’s unique metropolitan access and R1 research university status, tenure and tenure track processes, governance group structure, and administrative and operational support structure. We will also need to examine overall financial issues including facilities, branding and identity of campuses, community relations, and others including planning processes and timelines.”

Learning Legislation

The Wisconsin Legislature is still in session – but not for much longer. The state Senate and Assembly will continue to meet for about another week, before returning to vote on bills in January.

One of the newest bills to be introduced in recent weeks is causing quite a stir – and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the measure focuses on education.

What is the name of that new bill?

  1. Teacher Protection Act
  2. Testing Limitation Act
  3. Student Lunch Rights Act

Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) chairs the Assembly Education Committee – and his office is responsible for a bill that just started making the rounds for signatures at the State Capitol last week, titled the Teacher Protection Act.”

In essence, the bill does what its name indicates: protects teachers from violent attacks by students.

National statistics show that assaults and threats by students, against teachers have been on the rise over the last decade, in both public and private schools.

Theisfeldt says Wisconsin is among the worst states in the nation, so his bill would – among other things -- require the police to share information with schools when students commit or are arrested for violent acts off school grounds, and require school administrators to share that information with any teachers who work directly with that student. It also includes provisions that give teachers more power to initiate suspension actions against students; normally, that’s something that happens at the administrative level.

Critics say the bill would violate student privacy. Others added that the measure might disproportionally affect certain students.  Annysa Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spoke to Kim Schroeder, president of the Milwaukee teachers’ union MTEA:

“We can read between the lines […] This bill would without a doubt funnel more vulnerable children into the criminal justice system – especially students with special education needs who are already statistically at a much higher risk of incarceration.”

The Waiting Game

As is custom every year, schools across Wisconsin still anxiously await the latest round of state report cards.

Wisconsin’s public schools (and the districts that house them) receive annual scores from the state Department of Public Instruction – scores that play a major role in the state’s school accountability system. That’s because they give a snapshot of schools and districts based on metrics like student achievement and growth on annual tests, absenteeism, and progress toward closing achievement gaps.

What’s different about the set of report cards coming out this fall?

  1. Individual schools will receive report cards, but districts will not
  2. Test scores no longer factor into school scores
  3. Voucher schools will receive scores for the first time
Credit Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
The points rubric used to award schools' and districts' "scores" on Wisconsin DPI report cards.

The state’s public schools have received report cards for years. But public schools aren’t the only institutions receiving public money to educate kids; Wisconsin is home to three robust parental choice programs – the oldest in the country in Milwaukee, as well as growing endeavors in Racine and statewide.

Last year marked the first time private schools participating in all three of those voucher programs provided DPI with student data for report card purposes. But this is the first year those schools will receive actual scores – that’s because DPI needs at least two years of data to make comparisons and calculate growth measures.

DPI gives every individual school a score on a scale from 1 to 100 – and the numbers correspond to one of five ratings, ranging from “needs improvement” all the way up to “exceeds expectations” or “significantly exceeds expectations.”

A lot of tension and competition exists between Wisconsin’s public and private schools for funding and other resources, so many folks on both “sides” will be eager to see how their schools stack up against the others.

What's Coming Up?

Watch out for that UW Board of Regents meeting next Thursday, Nov. 9. Also this month, the Milwaukee School Board will host several “community conversations” about MPS facilities – with the first meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 8.

Plus, I’m interested to hear from you – parents, students, teachers, anyone – about what’s new in your neighborhood school, on your campus or in your afterschool play-group. And I’m always looking for input and suggestions about things to look into on southeastern Wisconsin’s education scene – from K-12 all the way to higher education and beyond. Submit your questions below!