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Two years after a controversial charter school proposal brought Madison’s low-income and minority achievement gap into uncomfortably sharp relief, the problem seems to have again retreated into dirty-little-secret status.

Funding for the Madison School District’s plan to close the gap took its latest hit last week, and recent leadership changes at the district mean it could be a while before administrators feel prepared to give the problem the attention it deserves.

Meanwhile, this summer could have marked the end of the first school year of a bold experiment aimed at closing the gap. Alas, the nonunion Madison Preparatory Academy failed to get the go-ahead from a teachers-union-centric school board, so I guess we’ll never know what it could have done right (or wrong).

Of course, school officials deny the achievement gap has fallen down the priority list.

“The overall goal of addressing the achievement gap certainly hasn’t receded as a goal,” School Board President Ed Hughes said.

He pointed to initiatives including the continuation of the AVID/TOPS college readiness program and a new after-school tutoring partnership with the Urban League of Greater Madison, which proposed Madison Prep.

In a statement, district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said a “strategic framework” that new superintendent Jennifer Cheatham will introduce on July 29 “will directly address gaps in student achievement and the work we must do to ensure all students graduate ready for college, career and community.”

Still, much has changed since former superintendent Dan Nerad introduced a $105.6 million, five-year achievement gap plan in February 2012 as something of a pacifier aimed at angry Madison Prep supporters and others who thought the district wasn’t doing enough to close the gap.

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Once the smoke cleared, Nerad’s plan was quietly cut by about half. Budget negotiations for the last school year resulted in another trim to the plan to $49 million, and just last week, Cheatham introduced a budget for next school year that would hold the plan’s funding flat.

More money could be allocated to existing gap efforts — as Cheatham’s proposed tax increase is less than half of what it could legally be — but she said Monday she was reluctant to suggest higher taxes before making sure every taxpayer penny was being spent wisely.

Not that the board, mindful of taxpayer reaction, would go for higher taxes anyway.

Indeed, while the district can rightfully be blamed for letting the gap persist, the gap won’t be eliminated unless the older, whiter people who make up the majority of district taxpayers are willing to accept a little more financial pain in service of the younger, more racially diverse people who make up the district’s student body.

No doubt Cheatham deserves a chance to come up with her own achievement gap-closing strategy. That’s part of why we hired her. And maybe it will turn out her plan looks a lot better than Madison Prep’s or Nerad’s.

At least it will until the next superintendent or budget cycle comes along, or until the teachers union decides to oppose it.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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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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