New voices: how the new school board could transform Madison education

For the first time in Madison’s history, the seven seats on the Madison Metropolitan School Board are held entirely by women. Now, what else will change?

Image By: Téalin Robinson and Courtesy of Ananda for School Board, The Committee to Elect Cris Carusi for School Board, and Ali Muldrow for School Board

New voices: how the new school board could transform Madison education

When the seven members of the Madison Metropolitan School Board gather to discuss their plans for the future after the April 2 election, there will be one noticeable change — everyone seated at the table will be a woman. 

This is the first time in Madison history the city will be represented by an all-female board, following the election which voted in Ali Muldrow, Ananda Mirilli and Cris Carusi.

Muldrow and Mirilli, who are both women of color, join Gloria Reyes to make this board closer to being racially representative of the Madison School District, which was made up of 58 percent students of color in the 2018-19 school year. 

Before the election of Muldrow and Mirilli, Reyes was the only person of color holding a seat. She was also the first Latinx woman on the board, and the first woman of color since Mary Wilburn in 1975. 

But will a school board made up of all women and several women of color lead to changes in school board policy? 

Chair of the UW-Madison Department of Gender and Women's Studies Aili Mari Tripp thinks it may. 

“It is very likely that some things will change, especially given the positions taken by existing board members,” Tripp said. 

The newly-elected board members indicated they plan to fight for major changes within the school district. 

Muldrow, who before her school board position was co-director of Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools, said she doesn’t want to wait for change, especially when that change could combat disparities black students face in Madison schools. 

She referenced that in 2016, 97 of the 114 students arrested at school were black. And Muldrow, who attended Madison schools from kindergarten to graduation, never had a black teacher. 

Mirrili, a former education equity consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, also advocated for bold change. She vowed to work collaboratively with the rest of the board to eliminate the district's racial achievement gap

Carusi listed closing the achievement gap and steering away from voucher schools as two of her top priorities. 

This desire for change has been echoed by community members, many of whom expressed concern at the lack of representation on the board. 

“We’ve been demanding liberation and justice forever,” said community activist Brandi Grayson at a board meeting this past February. “You have a rich white woman running your board. Your system is rooted in white supremacy, racism.”  

In the past year, Madison community members have also voiced their opposition to a motion that would bring more police officers into schools, a decision that could fall to the newly appointed school board. 

“Public sentiment has often opposed the presence of these school resource officers,” Tripp said. “Many opposed them because they felt they disproportionately targeted students of color, treating them as criminals.”

The new school board will address numerous accusations of racial slurs by Madison teachers, as well as an alleged assault of an 11 year-old student by an acting principal at Whitehorse Middle School. 

In response to these incidents, MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham recently released a statement acknowledging that racism is a problem in Madison schools and outlined some critical goals for the future. 

The women poised to address these challenges may be more likely to focus on social welfare concerns, the environment and women’s rights, Tripp said. It’s one way women tend to differ from men in leadership positions. 

Though she notes there are exceptions,Tripp believes “women also tend to adopt a more collaborative style and find it somewhat easier to work across their differences.” 

Muldrow and Mirilli followed this pattern of collaboration, running a joint campaign in preparation for the election. 

And on a national scale, the record number of women in Congress have seemed to value solidarity, even wearing white collectively at the State of the Union address. 

Although the U.S. saw an increase in female representation in the House of Representatives from 19.5 percent to 23.5 percent, and a jump from 22 percent to 25 percent in the Senate, the country ranks 79th globally for female representation in leadership, according to Tripp. 

But change at the local level may project change at higher levels, Tripp said.  

“School boards generally have more women — 44 percent in the U.S. — than other policy making positions,” she said. “They are often a stepping stone for women to run for other political offices at the metropolitan or state level.”

The newest female members prioritized radical change during their campaigns. Now they’ll embark down a long road of policy making, budget setting and grappling with public concern. 

“My goal is to make sure that every young person in this district feels welcomed in our schools. But we need to be bold,” Mirilli said on her campaign trail. “It’s time to be bold.”  

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