Study: Madison’s Low-Income, Minority Students Attend Unsafe, Failing Schools

The education scandal in Wisconsin’s most progressive city.

The News: Madison, the fastest growing city in Wisconsin, has a lot going for it. But the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is failing their low-income and minority students. WILL’s new study, Two Madisons: The Education and Opportunity Gap in Wisconsin’s Fastest Growing City, reveals a bifurcated school district where predominantly white, wealthy families attend top schools while low-income and minority students attend unsafe, low-quality schools.

The Study: Madison is representative of a particular progressive vision for education: one where the public schools are well-funded, the district is union-dominated, and there are few school choice options. Consider that Madison: 1) spends the most per student among large districts in Wisconsin ($15,241 on average), 2) has a teachers union that resisted Act 10 for years, and 3) has just two public charters and three private schools in the voucher program.

But this vision for education is failing. The predominantly white, wealthy families of Madison attend some of the top schools in the state. But the Madison public schools consistently fail their low-income and minority students when it comes to academic achievement, economic opportunity, and safety. WILL’s study finds:

  • School Safety — According to original WILL research, African Americans and Hispanic students are more likely to attend unsafe Madison schools with higher numbers of 911 calls.
  • Academic Achievement
    • Achievement— A nearly 50 percentage point gap divides Whites and African Americans in Reading and Math proficiency — one of the largest racial achievement gaps in the state.
    • Graduation Rates — Nearly one out of five African-American and Hispanic students in Madison do not earn a high school degree in five years. For White students in Madison, the number not earning a degree is one out of 12.
    • School Quality —Madison’s schools with more African-American and Hispanic students have worse outcomes on average.
  • Economic Opportunity — Research finds that for Madison children in low-income families, the likelihood is high that they will remain stuck in the poverty cycle.

Some Madison families with money have found the escape hatch. More than 4,000 students attend private schools without the assistance of a voucher. But for those without means, access is limited and options are few.

The WILL Solution: Madison families need help. 87% of Madison students attend MMSD — many in failing and unsafe schools. To provide all families with quality education options policymakers must act. To start:

  • Remove the enrollment barriers to the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program so that schools focused on low-income students in Madison can become viable.
  • Make it easier for private schools and public charter schools to expand into Madison by streamlining regulations and encouraging more charter school authorizers.

The Quote: Research Director Will Flanders said, “Madison provides a glimpse of the unvarnished progressive vision for education. The result is a public school district that fails low-income and minority students. Families cannot wait for MMSD to get its act together. They need quality options now.”

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