Carolyn Stanford Taylor is Wisconsin’s first African-American superintendent of schools. She was appointed last week by Gov. Tony Evers to take over his former job leading the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).
Stanford Taylor has firsthand experience with America’s deep-seated education inequities. As a 9-year-old, she was one the first black students to integrate schools in her hometown of Marks, Miss.
She says her mom posed the question to her and her siblings one day on the walk to school: do you want to go to the black school or the white school?
“To us as children, there was no choice. [The white school] had a swimming pool. They had equipment on their field for football and baseball,” Stanford Taylor said. “So, we all said we want to go to the white school. We didn’t know what was in store for us.”
Stanford Taylor says she and her siblings never got to swim in the white school’s pool. It was filled in with cement.
“We were in a place where we were not wanted,” she said.
But even though the school environment was not supportive, Stanford Taylor says her mother was the advocate she needed to be a successful student.
“She always said that education was our ticket out … There were other students from other families who didn't have that same kind of advocacy.”
After graduating high school, Stanford Taylor started college at a nearby Mississippi school. But her brother, a student at UW-Madison, convinced her to come to Wisconsin.
Stanford Taylor received her bachelor’s and master’s from UW-Madison. She was a teacher and principal in the Madison school district before joining the staff at DPI in 2001.
Now, as the leader of the state's education agency, Stanford Taylor says she wants to advance DPI’s "equity agenda," to close racial and economic achievement gaps, which are particularly wide in Wisconsin.
“We know that Wisconsin does well as a state if we look at our graduation rates, our attendance rates," Stanford Taylor said. "But our English learners are not doing as well. Our students of color are not doing as well. Our students who are living in poverty are not doing as well, as well as our students with disabilities.”
Stanford Taylor says she will push for more state funding of early childhood education as one strategy to tackle achievement gaps.
Last fall as head of DPI, Tony Evers called for a $1.4 billion increase to education spending. Now, Evers is governor, and he'll have to work with the Republican-controlled legislature on the budget.
Stanford Taylor says if she had to choose one education funding issue for the legislature to tackle, it would be special education, which she says has been underfunded for a long time.
Right now, the state reimburses only about a quarter of school districts’ special education costs. Evers’ DPI budget recommends increasing the reimbursement rate to 60 percent.
Stanford Taylor will oversee DPI until at least 2021, when her appointed term expires. She hasn’t ruled out running for election at that time.
“Wisconsin for me has provided opportunities that I would not have had, had I gone back to that same environment that I was in,” Stanford Taylor said. “Have we arrived? We have not arrived. And that is one of the reasons I am still in this.”
Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.