April 6 marks a key race in Wisconsin state politics. One of the most important seats opening up for grabs is the Superintendent of Public Education — who will run the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and take charge of all public education policies including elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and public higher education institutions.
The equity of public education is a key issue in Wisconsin politics.
“While we have some of the highest graduation rates, ACT scores and Advanced Placement participation in the country, we have yet to fully reconcile that success with the deep, persistent gaps in achievement, access and opportunity that exist for far too many Wisconsin children,” current Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor said.
Stanford Taylor is not seeking reelection.
Pushing for equitable public education will and should be the primary focus of the next superintendent. In the race for the state superintendent, three out of the initial six candidates put equity as their priority.
In 1954, the decision of Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in public schools — a historical decision during the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the decision, American housing districts remained racially isolated, meaning public schools in the targeted neighborhoods are racially isolated as well.
The segregation of neighborhoods is by no chance a coincidence, it is the reinforcement of federal and state governments. The constant gerrymandering for political gain is one of the reasons why segregation in public schools still exists.
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In Wisconsin, Milwaukee has one of the worst situations when it comes to public school segregation because of racially segregated neighborhoods. For African Americans, the city does not have good economic opportunities, homeownership and a whole lot of other socio-economic measures. As a result, some schools in the Milwaukee area are hypersegregated — with 90% or more of the student population in certain schools being students of color.
For cities like Milwaukee, when it comes to affordable housing, the government would target white borrowers and exclude Black Americans, using public policies as a blatant form of racism and discrimination. This case can also be extended to other racial or ethnic minorities who do not have access to equal opportunities.
The problem is such discriminatory policies are direct violations of the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Constitution, yet no politicians have been held accountable.
If the existing Constitution can be easily dismissed via public policymaking, then what is the point of having a Constitution in the first place? Ignoring and violating the Fourteenth Amendment is the same as having none.
It is up to the next superintendent to work relentlessly with other state agencies to offer equity and protect it through policies and laws. Equitable housing and education policies go hand in hand. To create more equitable school districts, the superintendent must create more equitable housing districts first by enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment strictly.
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This is only one of the challenges the next superintendent will face. Another hot issue at hand is how to teach sensitive topics — such as slavery — to educate students on the history and the struggle of racial minorities. In Sun Prairie, a 6th grade teacher was suspended after asking students how they would punish a slave while teaching Hammurabi’s Code.
Slavery is a highly sensitive topic in the United States, especially given the recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is insensitive of the teacher to ask students such a horrible question during Black History Month. This is not to say educators cannot teach sensitive topics — they just need to teach it in a mindful manner.
To avoid similar incidents from happening, the state should require all faculty members, staff and employees to attend mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training. The state should also evaluate its ability to practice DEI annually. If they fail the annual assessment, the state should ask them to retake DEI training.
The superintendent has the ability to make this happen. Having public instructors receive mandatory DEI training is the first step toward achieving equity in public institutions. The superintendent should work with state legislators to sign this into state law and enforce it through public policies.
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To effectively promote equity in public education, the state not only has the responsibility to train its employees but also the students who attend public schools — regardless of the level of education. Before graduating, each student from a public institution should have at least four semesters of coursework on ethnic studies.
For this, the superintendent should add ethnic study courses into course guidelines and graduation requirements for public schools. Educating students, faculty and staff at public schools can effectively raise awareness of the struggles of minorities. It also encourages students to communicate biases, stereotypes or any other judgments within a safe classroom environment.
Pushing for equitable housing policies, enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment, requiring mandatory DEI training and adding ethnic classes to existing requirements will be the primary challenges for the superintendent. The policies to address and meet these four challenges will have profound influences on future generations’ education and awareness.
Ken Wang ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science.