The most interesting part of a conference on education issues at Marquette Law School’s Eckstein Hall on Nov. 17, 2022, arguably did not take place during the conference itself. It was in the 45 minutes after the formal end of the two-hour session. A significant number of those who spoke or who were in the audience stayed on in the room to talk.
People from some of the best known and firmest ranks of the conservative and liberal sides of Wisconsin’s long-standing education debates stood in small groups, talking with each other civilly and sometimes with some agreement on what was being said. In some cases, they were people who had never met in person previously.
Those in attendance included four of the nine members of the Milwaukee School Board and several staff members from the Wisconsin Institute of Law & Liberty (WILL), a leading force in conservative advocacy on education issues. Along with other school leaders, civic leaders, and people from a range of education involvements, people found a lot to talk about.
It would go too far to say minds were changed and problems were solved. But serious and level-headed exchanges about issues are one of the core goals of programs of the Law School’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education, and that was a goal served during and in the aftermath of the conference.
Titled “So Now What? The Path Ahead for Education in Wisconsin and the Nation” and co-hosted by Marquette Law School and the Marquette College of Education, the conference included a presentation on the state of American students by Erin Richards of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a national think tank on education issues, and a panel discussion with four Wisconsin education leaders.
Richards said the CRPE assessment of information from all 50 states was that educators were finding it hard to make progress in helping students recover from the many impacts of the disrupted school years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From the situations of students themselves to limits on how recovery funds can be used and the practical aspects (such as staff shortages) for doing what works best for students, there have been many distractions to doing what would ideally best. In general, students still have substantial distances to go to get back on track with their educations.
“Can we use this crisis as a pivot point to actually do things differently in the future?” Richards asked. There is not much evidence yet to show that is so. But without improvements, schools will return to doing the same things they did prior to the pandemic, “and that wasn’t very good either,” when it came to long-term success for many students.
Richards pointed to some places, such as Mesa, Ariz., and Oakland, Calif., where there were efforts by educators and community members to create more effective ways to move students forward.
As for Milwaukee and Wisconsin, she said, “We just don’t see Milwaukee rising in the data” or doing much that is different or novel. And, she said, things have been “a little anemic” at the state level, a result in large part of politically divided government. With that divide continuing in the state Capitol, “I feel like we are looking at two more years of kind of just the status quo.,” she said. “There hasn’t been a desire to put aside political differences to do something meaningful on education.” She added, “I’m happy to be proven wrong.”
Richards was an education reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and for USA Today before joining CRPE in early 2022. The organization is based at Arizona State University.
During the panel discussion, strong differences of opinion on what should lie ahead were seen, but there was some signs of agreement that action is needed to if there are going to be better results for many Wisconsin students.
Aisha Carr, a member of the Milwaukee School Board, said, “We have reached a point where the urgency is unparalleled.” She said during election campaigns this fall, “education was presented as an afterthought.” Nationwide, “people really don’t give a damn about children,” and the large amounts of federal pandemic relief money were not being used to serve the real needs of students.
Carr called for structural changes in how schools use time and resources, including more involvement of community members and more opportunities for teachers to collaborate and improve their work.
Libby Sobic, L’16, director of education policy for WILL, said she hopes there will be constructive conversation in the state Capitol about how to use the state budget surplus, now listed at more than $6 billion. Sobic and WILL are advocates for parental choice programs for parents. She said the current Wisconsin system for funding education disincentivizes coming together on policies by emphasizing systems and not kids, and she hopes that will change.
“We need to change our language around funding to bridge the divide in government,” Sobic said. “We need to leverage parents.” Parents need to pressure both sides of the political divide to have conversations.
Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said, “I hold the radically contentious view that every single kid in every single public school in this state can and should have access to a great education.” We can do it, she said, adding, “The question is, why don’t we?”
Bourenane, whose has opposed private school choice programs, said that if partisan politics was put aside, there would be positive steps. “I worry that I’m not going to see much of that this year if we see the same kind of political game-playing we’ve seen in past sessions,” she said. But, she said, “the fire is burning” among people who want change.
Faith VanderHorst, interim executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance, an organization of leaders of 31 public school districts, said Wisconsin should focus on becoming “number one in the country for education.” Doing that would mean recognizing that schools need more money, there needs to be innovation, and that it’s time to stop “bickering” about education policy. “Why can’t we focus on schools and stop using our children as something to toss around?” she asked.
There have been some signs from Evers and Republican legislative leaders of a willingness to at least talk with each other as work on the next two-year state budget begins. That would be a change from the last several years when they generally didn’t speak to each other.
Will the conversations bring agreements or compromises to deal with issues schools of all kinds are facing statewide? It won’t happen easily. But talking together might be a prelude to change. The Eckstein Hall conference both formally and informally offered a glimpse of the willingness some people with differing views have to at least start the dialogue.
Video of the conference may be viewed by clicking here.