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rickert 1-23 column photo

Koua Xiong works with first grade student O'Vann Homesly, 6, at Lincoln Elementary School in Madison as part of a program that seeks to shrink the racial achievement gap -- a problem that's generated a lot of talk among Madison school officials, but fairly little action.

I got an email over the weekend from a person who took issue with my characterization of Madisonians as a caring people proud of their ability to provide affordable housing for the less fortunate.

It’s “lefty hypocrisy” to laud Madisonians for their social conscience, he said, because Madison is so racially and economically segregated.

Actually, maps from Madison’s planning department show government-supported housing is pretty evenly distributed throughout the city, and the Madison area isn’t as racially segregated as one might think, according to a Harvard University database that uses census data to report on segregation in American metro areas.

But the writer’s view of Madisonians as a bunch of liberals whose actions belie their highfalutin ideals rings true when it comes to at least one Madison institution: the schools.

Despite decades of embarrassing gaps in achievement between white and minority and poor and rich students, the Madison School District has:

• Moved slowly to ramp up the AVID/TOPS (Advancement Via Individual Determination/Teens of Promise) program, which has been shown to boost academic achievement among the district’s students of color, who make up more than half the student body. It served 7 percent of middle and high school students in 2012-13, up from 0.2 percent when AVID was introduced in 2007-08 (TOPS was added a year later).

• Done nothing to change regressive union rules that make teachers’ career advancement and promotion almost entirely a matter of their seniority and degree attainment — as opposed to, say, their ability to engage and educate students of color and poor students.

• Turned down a bid by the Urban League of Greater Madison to create a charter school that would have focused on serving poor and minority students.

• Declined to broach the idea of year-round school despite research showing that students from poor families suffer most from the “summer slide.”

• Declined to seek changes to a school board elections system that has already basically ensured a win for the one white candidate on the ballot this April. The black candidate and the Latino candidate will have to fight it out for the other districtwide seat.

None of this is news. What is new, however, is the attention Madison’s long-standing race-based disparities in the schools and other areas are getting from the politically liberal people who run this town.

The Cap Times devoted a cover story last month to an essay by black pastor and longtime Madisonian the Rev. Alex Gee, who pointed to all the ways majority-white Madison continues to tolerate such disparities and in some cases denies people of his skin color equal treatment.

Among the essays written in response to Gee’s piece was one by Madison School Board president Ed Hughes, who wrote that racial disparities were a “real problem” and “we have to acknowledge white privilege.”

Hughes wrote he wasn’t speaking for the school district — an important disclaimer.

Because if he and other school officials — or Madison liberals generally — have given racial disparities in the schools the kind of attention Hughes seems to think they deserve, I sure haven’t seen it.

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


Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.