Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took his Democratic challenger, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, to task on Monday for what the Republican governor described as Evers' failure to narrow the state's achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students.
Through a state Department of Public Instruction spokesman, Evers argued that, as governor, Walker hasn't approved budget requests from Evers that would help close the gap. Evers' campaign accused Walker of trying to change the subject after a weekend of negative headlines related to his transportation budget and his use of a state airplane.
"All of my budget requests include policy designed to help close gaps — very few of those items are given consideration. The governor knows that," Evers said in a statement. "Despite those setbacks, we continue to work with teachers, families, and communities to design supports that fit their needs. Political rhetoric isn’t going to fix this. Leadership and support can."
Wisconsin has, for more than two decades, had the worst disparity in educational performance between white and black students according to measures tracked by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
"One of the most important things you can do in service to the people of Wisconsin is keep your promises and do what you said you were going to. I’ve done this, Tony Evers has not," Walker tweeted on Monday. "After calling the effort to close Wisconsin's achievement gap a priority and promising significant improvement, Tony Evers has FAILED to make notable progress in his 9+ years in office."
Walker's campaign pointed to standardized test scores from each school year, starting with 2009-10 and ending with 2016-17. The data set did not include scores from 2014-15, when the state administered a test called the Badger Exam for only one year. The first five years of data come from the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts, or WKCE, exam, and the final two come from the Forward exam, which replaced the WKCE and Badger exams.
DPI officials noted that they discourage comparisons across exams, since formats differed from the WKCE to the Badger to the Forward assessment. A Walker campaign spokesman said the Badger exam wasn't included in its analysis because DPI had previously cautioned against comparing it to other exams.
Statewide, the achievement gap between black and white students in the reading and language arts area rose by 7.2 points from 2009-10 to 2016-17. In the same subject over the same period of time, the gap between white and Hispanic students went down by 0.7 points. According to the test data for 2016-17, statewide, white students outperformed black students by 37.4 percent in reading and language arts proficiency and outperformed Hispanic students by 24.8 percent.
In math, the gap grew for both black and Hispanic students over the same period of time — by 0.4 points for Hispanic students and by 2.2 points for black students. According to the test data for 2016-17, statewide, white students outperformed black students by 39.8 percent in math proficiency and outperformed Hispanic students by 27.7 percent.
A Walker campaign memo argued that Evers' efforts to address the state's achievement gap have only offered "a failed task force and excuses."
Evers was asked about the issue during a debate in the 2017 state superintendent race. He said then that "external factors" not under his control have contributed to the problem, including the challenge of educating students living in poverty and the loss of good-paying jobs.
Asked about Walker's tweets on Monday, Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback did not directly respond to their content, instead arguing Walker was trying to distract from criticisms over his approach to transportation funding and his frequent flights on a state plane.
DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy provided a list of 19 budget requests made between the 2013-15 budget and the current 2017-19 budget that were designed to expand opportunity and reduce gaps. Walker did not approve those requests, which included efforts to weight per-pupil aid to account for school districts' poverty levels, students learning English and students living in foster care; to increase school breakfast aid and to expand gifted and talented programs.
McCarthy also shared a document outlining the agency's requests for the next budget, which include expanding and funding new programs in the state's five largest school districts — Milwaukee, Kenosha, Green Bay, Madison and Racine — which have disproportionate shares of students with significant achievement gaps. The proposals include expanding summer school grants, offering new funding for 3K programs and offering extra funding to National Board certified teachers who teach in high-poverty schools in those five districts.
Ken Taylor, executive director of Kids Forward — a Madison-based group that studies, among other issues, racial disparities and child well-being in Wisconsin — said Wisconsin's racial gap in academic achievement and opportunity "stems from deep-rooted racial and structural issues."
"If we want every child in Wisconsin to succeed in school — including children of color — then we need to make investments in creating excellent schools, increasing employment in family supporting jobs, and providing access to affordable, high quality health care for every child in the state," Taylor said in a statement.