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Leopold Community School

Students and children from the community play with paper cups Nov. 15 at Leopold Elementary School as part of a program designed to narrow the gap between the community and schools. PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

With a contested race for state superintendent of public instruction and a legislative session that is swinging into gear, much is at stake for public education in Wisconsin.

One of the fundamental issues at the center of the debate is the potential expansion of “school choice,” which is the term used to describe using public school funds to expand independent charter schools, school vouchers, and a more recent phenomenon called “education savings accounts.”

The way “choice” works is that state lawmakers force public school districts to pay for vouchers for private schools or the creation of charter schools that have no accountability or connection to our local districts.

In other words, even if the state provides us with more aid, which some have promised, it is then drained from our public schools and given to independent charters and private schools on the back end.

This is the thing. Over 50 million students are served in K-12 public schools in the United States. In comparison, 5 million are served in private or independent charter schools. Public education is paramount to the success of our students, our communities and our country.

As a public school superintendent and longtime educator, I am exhausted by the oversimplification of the problem and the potential solutions. That’s because the persistent correlation between socioeconomic status and educational achievement in our country is real. And race, structural racism in particular, is the driving force behind it.

It is absurd to me that some policymakers believe that the solution is simply to give parents “choice” — or in other words, drain more and more resources from public schools.

My key question to our legislators is this: What is your agenda for helping our public schools better serve the vast majority of students in the United States and in Wisconsin? How can you help us do more of what we know works in education?

What can you do to help us address gaps in students’ health and well-being, making it possible for every child to attend school daily and be fully attentive and ready to learn? Even if our academic strategies are perfect, if a child is not ready to learn, we won’t see better results. We have to find ways for our system to ensure those needs are met so that children are ready to excel.

Here in Madison, we are embracing the community school model. Community schools take our support of students and families to the next level through power sharing and integration of coordinated services into schools, where our students and families are every day.

What can you do to help us personalize the educational experience for students? Our students deserve unique educational opportunities that build on their strengths and interests and help them meaningfully explore future college and career options so that they can be successful at each stage of their education and graduate ready for today’s world and today’s economy.

We are doing that locally — through the implementation of our technology integration plan and through the establishment of personalized pathways to graduation at the high school level.

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What can you do to help us dramatically increase access to out-of-school learning opportunities — like summer school, summer camps, athletics and art programs? Every one of our students should have opportunities to keep learning, to enrich their learning, when outside of school. This is because the privileged have only piled on more privilege over the years, while those without have remained without.

In Madison, we have partnered with the city of Madison and an unprecedented number of community providers to create MOST, the Madison Out of School Time Coalition. This partnership is aimed at identifying, coordinating and increasing access to summer and after-school opportunities. The goal is to guarantee access to high quality after-school and summer opportunities for every child.

The approach we are taking in MMSD, despite the challenges we face at the state and national levels, is getting better and better results for students. What it includes is a critical focus on getting the best teachers in classrooms, even if that means growing our own from high school; supporting teachers throughout their careers with key investments in strong instructional coaching; and creating a culture of high expectations through embracing high standards and systems for internal monitoring and accountability.

Instead of lawmakers undermining our efforts by siphoning away our limited funds in the name of “choice,” we need actual support and stability for public schools and the 50 million students we serve in this country. Help remove the barriers to our progress. Help us do what we know works in education.

Jennifer Cheatham is the superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District.

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