The first time I heard from Nelson Cummings was about a year and a half ago when he called me up in response to something I'd written about race and Madison.

A retired public school counselor and a 44-year Madison resident whose kids went to Madison schools, Cummings is black and was the first head of the Madison chapter of the Urban League.

The last time I heard from Cummings was about six months ago when it was clear Madison Preparatory Academy — a proposed charter school aimed at improving the achievement of low-income minority students — wasn't going to have the votes to pass the Madison School Board.

I can't remember his exact words, but they went something like: "Watch; once Madison Prep fails, there will be lots of noise about what the district is going to do to improve minority achievement. But then it will get quieter and quieter until finally, race and the racial achievement gap fade off the radar again. And nothing will have changed."

So far, he hasn't been wrong. On Thursday, Superintendent Dan Nerad released his proposed budget for next school year, and, lo and behold, it cuts funding for his plan to close the racial achievement gap for the third time since the plan was unveiled in February.

What started out as a five-year, $105.6 million proposal became a $55.6 million proposal by May. And on Thursday, funding for the plan next year dropped from $5.8 million to $4.4 million.

The total five-year cost of the plan is now about $49 million, according to district budget documents.

Less money doesn't necessarily mean worse education, of course, although you'd never know it given how outraged Madison schools have been by Gov. Scott Walker's school funding cuts.

The slow diminution of the district's achievement gap plan only stands to reason.

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It was already something of a fig leaf for a district that rejected the much less expensive Madison Prep amid opposition from the teachers union and liberal activists who painted the school's chief advocate, Urban League of Greater Madison president Kaleem Caire, as something of a school privatization Trojan Horse for the right.

(I never really understood how a black guy of modest origins who struggled in the Madison schools himself got tossed in with the likes of Newt Gingrich.)

This despite one of the widest racial achievement gaps in the state and a dismal four-year graduation rate for blacks of 50 percent.

I called Cummings on Saturday to see what he thought of Thursday's news.

"I hate to be a cynic," he said, but he'd seen it happen "over and over and over. ... It's easy to wear people out by giving them hope."

Cummings initially wasn't a big fan of Madison Prep. It would have served only a few dozen students, he argued, and what minority kids need is a districtwide attitude adjustment toward the issue.

He later became a supporter because he saw it as "an opportunity to sort of rattle the cage."

Well, the cage has been rattled, but it appears its bars remain just as sturdy.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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