Despite modest improvements to the state's public education system, when Gov. Scott McCallum signed the $46.9 billion biennial budget Aug. 30, he did a fabulous job of maintaining the status quo. It is clear that UW-Madison?s policies for a more diverse campus are not being helped with the scant attention the state pays to K-12 education.
To his credit, the governor did continue funding for 4-year-old kindergarten, and he signed an increase in funding for smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. At the university level, he increased funding for some grant programs and the Biostar initiative, insuring in some measure that money will continue to be gathered for higher education.
However, by not allowing school districts flexibility with revenue caps, he all but negated these positive steps. Without the relaxation of the state-imposed revenue caps, school districts will either need to scrape by or try their luck with public referendums that often fail. The revenue ceilings hit poorer school districts especially hard because they are locked into low levels of spending while education costs rise, leaving them at a permanent disadvantage in terms of resources provided to their students.
More importantly, the governor did little to improve what is sorely lacking in our education system: equal opportunities for all Wisconsin students. Though Wisconsin has the highest average ACT score of states with at least 40 percent of students taking the test, whites on average scored 5.4 points higher than African Americans in Wisconsin. It's admirable that more than 15,000 Wisconsin high school students took Advanced Placement courses last year--but fewer than 7 percent of those were minorities. Also, only one-third of black students in those courses earned grades high enough to receive college credit, while two-thirds of whites earned such grades.
In Milwaukee Public Schools, where 80 percent of the students are of color, the dropout rate for 1999-2000 was 10.4 percent. This is double the national average of 5 percent for 1998-99. In addition to being a serious problem in and of itself, this also leads to problems with diversity at the university level.
Furthermore, with the increased out-of-state tuition, UW-Madison will be less attractive to students from other states, presumably giving an advantage to students from Wisconsin--a source of the above disparities.
Considering race in university admissions is an attempt to correct these problems, but this policy is at best a temporary fix. Even if it does provide opportunities for students of color, that solution is nowhere close to ideal. The goal of affirmative action is to reach a point where race doesn't have to be a factor, where admissions can be based solely on merit because all applicants have had equal opportunities. This objective can't be reached until all students have a roughly equivalent environment in which to grow and pursue their dreams.
The overall goal of better schools is obviously the most important reason to improve K-12 education in this state. But with the courts recently declaring certain admissions policies unconstitutional, Wisconsin needs to act quickly to ensure diversity from another angle in case its admissions policies are challenged, which is a very real possibility. McCallum either chose to ignore this or decided that spending $75 million to buy a 1,600-bed prison was more important.
Equal access to universities starts with equal opportunities in K-12 education. McCallum needs to recognize that and look at the long term to ensure those opportunities.