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The race for state schools superintendent is playing out against a stark background — Wisconsin’s gap in academic success between black and white students is the widest in the country.

Two-term incumbent Tony Evers and his challenger Lowell Holtz each say he’s in the best position to help school districts, though it’s unclear just how much influence the state superintendent and the Department of Public Instruction can have on local decisions.

The issue has served as the lens through which a number of changes to the state’s educational landscape have taken shape, including the creation of private school voucher systems, an increase in charter schools, the adoption of a new set of controversial academic standards and an overhaul of school discipline policies.

Though Holtz once supported Evers, a central message to Holtz’s campaign this year is that Evers has had eight years leading the Department of Public Instruction to make significant progress in closing the state’s achievement gap, and schools’ progress in that time has been too small.

“If you look at his speech (from Evers’ 2009 election), he was going to turn things around for his large, urban areas,” Holtz said. “I thought things were going to happen. After eight years, we’ve gone from somewhere in the middle of the road to worst in the nation. I don’t believe he knows how to do it, and if he did know how to do it, he would.”

But Evers cites progress, saying the bar by which gaps are measured has also been raised during his tenure and that a statewide turnaround can’t be made overnight on an issue that is heavily influenced by poverty, which schools can’t alone address. And a key proposal Evers has made to tackle the issue — a significant overhaul of the state’s school funding system — has been ignored by Gov. Scott Walker and a Republican-controlled Legislature four times since 2011.

“To say that we’ve been avoiding this problem would be an absolute pile, because we’ve spent lots of time and lots of money to make progress and we’ve made some, but not enough,” Evers said.

State law says the state superintendent has the power to aggressively intervene in persistently low-performing school districts, but not actually assume complete control over the administration of the districts.

But whoever wins the April 4 election would lead the DPI, an agency that administers state and federal funding for 422 school districts and state funding for the private school voucher programs. The myriad state superintendent duties include licensing teachers, writing and adopting academic standards, helping districts find qualified teachers, inspecting school buildings and intervening in low-performing schools when needed.

Holtz urges community solution

In December, Holtz and a candidate that was later eliminated in the spring primary election discussed the possibility of one of them dropping out of the race in exchange for landing a six-figure, taxpayer-funded job at DPI overseeing urban districts.

Holtz suggested the job at DPI would give him “complete authority” over districts in Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee, Racine and potentially Green Bay. The proposal gave Holtz the authority to create rules for the districts, change school boards and break apart school districts.

Those districts have high percentages of students living in poverty and more than 80 percent of their black children are not proficient in reading and math as measured by state tests, according to DPI data.

Holtz disavowed the idea once it became public. Instead, Holtz said if he is elected, he would build teams of DPI staff that would help urban districts foster relationships with parents and other community members to create a school community that feels ownership over a school and its students’ academic achievement, attendance record and graduation rates. Improving safety in schools also is a centerpiece of his campaign.

“The very last thing I want is to impose some kind of takeover on a school district. Just scientifically, it doesn’t work,” Holtz said in an interview. “From my own personal experience, the only way we’re able to turn around large, urban districts is getting everybody on board — businesses to parents. When you do that, and then focus on making it a positive learning environment within the school, you have a lot more opportunity for success. If a community feels ownership over a school, it keeps it rolling.”

Holtz said the DPI also could do more with districts like Madison, which has no shortage of community involvement and interest in its schools but fewer than 60 percent of its black students are graduating in four years and about 80 percent are testing poorly in reading and math.

He said he would bring what are known as Innovation Zones to Madison if elected. Innovation Zones look different in each district but generally allow districts to create different rules or programs for schools or groups of schools in an effort to boost student achievement in significant ways by crafting a unique school day or special instruction or tutoring plans, for example.

“Those are intelligent kids and we’re wasting generations of children by not looking at some of these other options,” Holtz said.

Six states have Innovation Zones, which generally require school districts to ask the state for greater flexibility in structuring the school day and how they teach kids, much like how charter schools are treated. Holtz said Madison would be a good candidate for freedom from some state and federal requirements.

“You can’t say we’re doing everything we can and we’re still failing,” Holtz said. “We’re the adults. We don’t have a choice. The kids — we can’t give up on our kids.”

Holtz says his experience overseeing Beloit schools between 2006 and 2009 gives him credentials for this task — while there, graduation rates rose about 20 percentage points among black students.

Evers seeks funding overhaul

Evers has long championed an overhaul of the state’s school funding system as one way to address gaps in achievement. This would include providing a minimum amount of funding per student in school districts and some extra for students living in poverty, living in foster homes and students learning English as a second language.

The proposal has been rejected four times by Republican lawmakers, in part because it requires a significant boost in funding to work.

Evers also has said lawmakers need to properly fund public school districts before expanding the state’s taxpayer-funded school voucher programs to ensure districts like Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee and Racine have enough money to provide needed tutoring, teachers and other programs to improve academic achievement among low-performing students.

“I still believe we have some obligations around the achievement gap, especially in areas of extremely high poverty and difficult and sometimes dysfunctional neighborhoods,” Evers said.

Evers also said he has worked to provide districts with flexibility they need to address challenges. Evers said he has worked to give Milwaukee Public Schools the latitude to offer more summer school programs and said he hopes to be able to help the district provide year-round instruction in the future.

“There’s no data to support a top-down interference by the state or federal government. I think the state has an obligation to remove obstacles. Have we done all those things? Yes. Have we turned the Titanic around? No,” Evers said. “I accept the fact that we haven’t had enough progress … I also believe it’s a community and statewide issue that transcends kids and their schools. If you have such an economic disparity in the state as we do, that has an impact.”

Adopting the rigorous Common Core education standards in 2010 was another way to improve academics across the state, Evers said. The standards, which Holtz opposes and said he would get rid of, tell teachers what students should know and what skills they should have in each grade level.

Evers also said part of his work to provide schools with guidance on how to reduce gaps in achievement will come through a council convened of educators, education-related lobbyists and lawmakers that Evers heads to figure out how Wisconsin will carry out the measures of the new federal education law Every Student Succeeds Act.

For the districts with the widest gaps — Madison and Milwaukee — Evers said the department has been working for six or seven years with Milwaukee to standardize their curriculum across the district to ensure students at every school will receive the same kind of educational programs, even if they move around the district throughout a single year.

Evers, like Holtz, said community engagement is key in improving academic achievement among students — especially those living in poverty, who generally do more poorly in school than their wealthier peers. In Madison, however, Evers said coordinating the efforts from various organizations to ensure the areas most in need of extra help get it would make more of an impact on academic achivement.

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