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Scott Walker, Mary Burke

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, left, and his Democratic gubernatorial opponent Mary Burke.

Gov. Scott Walker took the campaign against Democratic opponent Mary Burke to her front door Wednesday, accusing the one-term Madison School Board member of not doing enough to improve black students’ graduation rates in Madison.

Walker argued that the Madison School Board could have put more money toward raising graduation rates and academic achievement if it had taken advantage of his controversial 2011 measure known as Act 10, which effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers, instead of choosing to negotiate a contract with its teachers union for the 2015-16 school year earlier this summer.

“Voters may be shocked to learn that the African-American graduation rate in Madison (where Mary Burke is on the board) is worse than in MKE,” Walker tweeted Wednesday morning.

Burke shot back that Walker’s comments were “short sighted” and showed “a lack of knowledge” of how to improve student academic achievement.

In 2013, 53.7 percent of black students in Madison graduated in four years. In Milwaukee, the rate was 58.3 percent, according to state Department of Public Instruction data. That gap is smaller than it was in 2012, when the four-year completion rate among black students was 55 percent in Madison and 62 percent in Milwaukee.

Overall, the 2013 graduation rates for the two largest school districts in Wisconsin was 78.3 percent in Madison and 60.6 percent in Milwaukee.

Under Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, the district has made progress in the last year toward improving overall student achievement, Burke said in a call with reporters. School Board president Arlene Silveira also said Wednesday the district has started to move the needle under Cheatham.

“Is it enough progress? No. We still have a lot of work to go, and whether you’re talking about African-American (graduation rates) in Madison or talking about (rates) in Milwaukee, they are too low,” Burke said. “But the key to improving student learning, that anyone who really looks at education knows, is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.”

Burke said Walker’s comments show “a lack of knowledge about what is actually going to improve student achievement.”

After touring Automation Components Inc., a manufacturing company in Middleton, Walker also reiterated his support for lifting or expanding the enrollment cap on Wisconsin’s statewide private voucher school program and called on Burke and the rest of the Madison School Board to embrace school choice and implement the changes in Act 10.

Burke, who campaigned in 2012 for her School Board seat on closing the achievement gap, released an ad last week featuring a student who enrolled in AVID/TOPS, a Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and Madison School District program that Burke helped start and largely funded. The program is designed for students who may not otherwise be college-bound and aimed at students from low-income households and students of color.

In speaking with reporters Wednesday, Walker referenced a visit to the private voucher school St. Marcus School in Milwaukee earlier in the day to draw a contrast with Madison’s public schools.

He noted 96 percent of children at St. Marcus — which has a student body that’s about 80 percent black and is 89 percent low-income — go on to graduate from high school, according to a report card the school released on its website.

“That’s a stark contrast, not only to Milwaukee where 62 percent of the African-American kids graduate” in four years, Walker said, citing 2012 graduation rates. “Shocking to many people, it’s actually even lower here in Madison. In Madison, the African-American graduation rate is 55 percent.

“I think that’s interesting because when Mary Burke was running for the school board, she talked about the achievement gap. And yet you see the achievement gap for African-American students in terms of graduation is actually worse in Madison than it is in Milwaukee.”

He added, “We have ways that we can help. One of those is expanding choices for low-income families around the state. That’s something I’ve supported, and will continue to push. That’s something that Mary Burke has clearly said she opposes, and would like to limit the number of choices that families like I saw today had at St. Marcus.”

Prior to running for the School Board, Burke pledged $2.5 million to open Madison Preparatory Academy — an independent charter school proposed by the Urban League of Greater Madison geared toward low-income, minority students that was ultimately voted down by the board at the time.

Cheatham said Wednesday it would be more helpful if Walker supported the district’s efforts to raise graduation rates and close gaps in achievement between groups of students.

“As a district, we are a year into a major improvement effort aimed at closing opportunity gaps that lead to achievement gaps,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “Rather than criticize our promising results this year, it would be more helpful to have support at the state level for the work that our teachers and staff are doing every day — support for the Common Core and a stable environment for us to focus on the day-to-day work of teaching and learning.”

Burke also rejects expanding the two-year-old statewide voucher program, calling it an “entitlement program” for families who send their children to private schools, noting most students attending private schools in the program did not attend public schools previously. However, she reiterated her support for keeping vouchers in Milwaukee and Racine.

Walker’s campaign on Wednesday also called on Burke and the Madison School Board to “accept the Act 10 reforms and save millions of dollars for district taxpayers,” adding that the district will be the only one in the state not doing so in the 2015-16 school year.

Burke said the district is fiscally responsible and one of a small percentage of districts in Wisconsin that levies less in taxes than is authorized under state revenue caps.

The School Board approved a collectively bargained contract for the 2015-16 school year with teachers union Madison Teachers Inc. earlier this summer, before the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled to uphold Act 10.

In his campaign statement, Walker said the $55 million the district spends on employee health care premiums could be reduced by $6.6 million if employees contributed 12 percent to premiums. Currently, district employee health insurance is completely district-paid.

In response, Burke, Cheatham and Silveira all noted that a new health and wellness plan currently in the works could save the district health care costs. Burke also said good salary and benefits helps to attract and retain quality teachers.

“I would point out that we are working together with our employee unions on a health and wellness approach,” Cheatham wrote.

“We believe we’ll be able to create a better approach by working together on it.”

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Contact Molly Beck at mbeck@madison.com or 608-252-6135. Contact Mary Spicuzza at mspicuzza@madison.com or 608-252-6122.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.

State Government Reporter for Wisconsin State Journal