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Q&A: Carolyn Stanford Taylor: Leading DPI 'an opportunity to expand our equity agenda'

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Carolyn Stanford Taylor is Wisconsin's state superintendent.

Carolyn Stanford Taylor was appointed as Wisconsin’s state superintendent of public instruction by Gov. Tony Evers following his election last fall.

Taylor started her career as a teacher and principal in the Madison Metropolitan School District before joining the Department of Public Instruction in 2001. She’s the first black state superintendent in Wisconsin’s history, an achievement particularly noteworthy given she was one of the first black children to integrate previously segregated schools in Mississippi.

She’s currently taking the reins of an agency led by Evers for years, and is trying to put Evers’ education-heavy biennial budget through a Republican-led Legislature.

You’ve made history by being in this position. Do you feel like you’ve come full circle given that you started your career in education here in Madison?

I guess you could look at it that way. It never was an office I initially aspired to. I think in every phase of my educational journey, I’ve looked at opportunities to make a difference for our children and our families. So my career began as a teacher, and then I went to administration because at the time, I thought it was a larger impact if I could work with all of the children and all of the families in the schools and our community. From there, the opportunity arose to go to the DPI and think about policy and the policies that schools operate under.

So this journey hasn’t been one that I’ve traveled alone. I’ve had a lot of people help me to get to where I am. Things just unfolded that way.

Gov. Evers had been at DPI for a while until now. Has there been a foundation at DPI built by Gov. Evers that you feel like you can expand upon?

Initially, I went to DPI in 2001 — that was when Libby Burmaster became superintendent. And Libby and I worked together in the Madison School District, so when she offered the opportunity for me to join that team, I jumped at it because the areas she explained to me were areas I was deeply involved in anyway. It was looking at equity and how do we move the state, or how do we begin the conversation about who are our students who are not part of this dream that we have as society.

So we initially started our focus and looking at the data and finding out who those populations were. And at that time, Tony Evers was Libby’s deputy, so when Libby ran two terms, Tony ran and won three terms. And I stayed on with him. And one of the reasons is — I don’t know if a lot of people know about the Department of Public Instruction (and) that we have a lot of passionate people who work there, people who come from education settings, leaders in their schools, people who come with the same aspirations to make a wider impact. So it always felt like a family to me and that we were pulling in the same direction.

So when Tony left and offered this opportunity to me, it was an opportunity to expand our equity agenda. The agenda has been equity for a number of years, but for me it is an opportunity to drill deeper and to try to put a little more flesh on the bones and be more intentional about the work we’re doing as an agency to have strategic impacts on the school districts we work with.

The budget was called an equity budget and had a variety of different proposals. How do you navigate shepherding that budget through a Republican Legislature that doesn’t want to spend a lot of money necessarily?

The realization for us, when our now-governor was still superintendent, was that if we don’t ask for it, we don’t get it, so we have to make the ask. When I became superintendent, one of the things we started to do was to schedule visits with legislators. I want to introduce myself and talk about my background and what my passion is, and talk about where can we find common ground.

We know that there are a lot of legislators who are on board when we talk about mental health, when we talk about students with special needs and needing to add some additional funding to those programs. There are a number of them on board when we start to talk about extended learning for our children, whether it’s before school, after school, summer school, wherever it may be. So we start from common ground.

How would you characterize those conversations so far? Have they been productive?

I would say they’ve been very productive. There are individuals who might say realistically, education is important, but we have all of these other things we have to look at too, and I understand that. One of the things I ask them to think about is that if we don’t at this point start to prioritize education, we continue to lose ground. We lose those folks who are our future leaders, and so we have to make that investment.

One of the changes was fixing the school funding formula. Can you expand on why it’s important to change the formula, and why the changes proposed are the right ones to make?

It’s one of those that the average (person) wouldn’t get into all the weeds of the funding formula. But it’s trying to make sure that the districts with the greatest needs have the resources available to them that they need. So when we talk about equity, that’s what that budget is trying to do.

You’ve been in the education field for a long time in Wisconsin, and the racial achievement gap has been a persistent issue. How do you reflect on where progress has been made and why the gap exists, and why it persists, even in 2019?

In our state in particular, we’ve had this change in demographics. It’s having educators, community, citizens realize that you can’t educate in the same way, and that we have to honor what our students bring with them. It’s a matter of helping to develop the talents and skills and abilities of everyone who walks into our classrooms — whether that’s a disability, a student who’s an English language learner, a student who’s coming from poverty, whoever the student may be. And our system has to work for all of our students, not just some.

I think the other thing when we talk about the gap, we talk about No Child Left Behind. There was a lot of criticism of No Child Left Behind, but the one good thing was that it caused us to go back and look at our data. It caused us to dis-aggregate the data. Because as a state we look great, in terms of the graduation rates, ACT scores. But when we start to dis-aggregate, we find our gap. This is where we’re not reaching all of our students. We have to be very intentional in how we try to lift up our students.

Are there specific ways we can be more intentional in addressing the achievement gap?

Going back to the budget, when we built the budget, we called it an equity budget because we wanted to look at the areas in which we could have impact. So we started to talk a little bit about early childhood. Many of our students come to school with language deficits and other barriers and part of that goes to the environments in which they’re being kept. So whether it’s an unlicensed child care person, it could be grandma, uncle, aunt. And I’m not pointing fingers at our families. I think our families do the best job that they can. Everyone wants the best for their child, but everyone is trying to make a living, so if we start to back up, and think about our youngest learners and where we have them, and look at our priorities and frontload for our youngest, that’s when we start to level the playing field so our children come into school being ready to compete.

What do you think is the biggest strength and weakness of K-12 education in Wisconsin?

I think the strength is in our diversity. And that we mirror our society and that we all bring again, those talents and gifts that, if nurtured, can be contributors to the growth of our society. The challenge, and a lot of people will look at it and say the system needs to do this, the system needs to do that — I think we all have a role to play in that. It’s not so much the child and how we change the child; we have to look at the adults in the system as well, and we need to look at where we bring more professional development for our educators who are in our systems, how we start to look at where social emotional learning is for our students.

There’s an assumption that all of our students come to us with these things, and we know that’s just not true. So we have to teach some of these skills, because what we’re hearing from employers is we need students who come to us with the ability to work through problems, conflict resolution, to work together collaboratively. Only looking at testing, we kind of lost sight of all of those things that we know are good for children and schools and communities, the relationship building, the ability for kids to explore, so that it’s not so regimented. It’s using all of that inquisitiveness to figure out what it is that they want to do and we help to guide them into doing it and finding out how to do it successfully.

How do you feel about how much testing there is?

I feel that testing should be for a purpose. We don’t need to teach to a test, but if we’re working toward having a well-rounded individual, with that inquisitiveness, they’re going to do well on whatever test you put in front of them.

It seems unique that the governor is someone who’s well-versed in education issues. How has that relationship been since the inauguration?

I think the uniqueness of that relationship is that I’ve had the opportunity to work with Tony for the last 16 years or so, and our perspectives are very similar. When we built this budget, he was there to build this budget that we presented. And so it was elevating much of the work of the agency and hearing the voices from around the state about what they see as the needs and those needs are reflected in that budget.

Do you think you’ll run for another term once this term is finished up in 2021?

That’s a good question. I have not ruled it out. Right now I am, what, 2.5 months into the job? I’m feeling good about it. I feel very optimistic. Ask me that again at the end of the year.

Critics of Tony and DPI, especially with the budget, say that we don’t need to throw more money at education.

I think we hear a clear indication from our communities that are holding referendums. I believe it’s over 90 percent of those that have been passed, and so the communities are saying, there’s a recognition that there’s a need in our schools. Our schools are under-resourced. There are rural communities that don’t have access to broadband. That creates a gap too, right? And if our citizens in our communities are saying we’re willing to tax ourselves, that should be a message.

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