Five candidates are competing for three seats on the Madison school board, with the general election on April 2, 2013.
The political context for the races is explosive, given Gov. Scott Walker's revolutionary proposals for education in Wisconsin: cuts to public school funding, an expansion of the voucher program, and a revamping of teachers' evaluations and bargaining rights.
In Madison, the issues are particularly complex, with the intense disagreements over the district's achievement gap between white and minority students.
In this competitive series of elections, there are numerous candidate forums and listening sessions under way, and we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates. We start by asking the candidates about their experience, and how they would address the achievement gap in the district.
Why are you running, and what qualifies you to be on the Madison school board? What is your stake in Madison schools?
My name is James Howard, current president of the Madison school district's Board of Education (BOE), and I am running for my second term. During my two years as president of the board, I have gained invaluable knowledge of current district programs. My experience is vital to seeing the successful implementation of those programs that are designed to raise student achievement and narrow achievement gaps. These programs will aide in the continued improvement of achievement for all students.
Since we are replacing two board members this year as well as hiring a new superintendent, it's more important than ever to continue a level of consistency on the BOE while maintaining historical and institutional knowledge. As an economist and researcher, a Madison home owner, and a father of children attending Madison's public schools, I am very knowledgeable, experienced, and considerate of the need to balance our school district's needs with our responsibility to the city's taxpayers.
I believe that all citizens have a stake in Madison schools. Having a well-educated society is important to our local economy and economic development. Simply put, we must have skilled workers to fill job vacancies and to grow the local economy. Having a well-educated society adds to the quality of life for all of our citizens.
I am running for school board to protect the public school system that shaped me into the person I am today. My education at La Follette High School prepared me to succeed in college at Stanford University, and in my career as a legislative assistant, working on education policy in the State Assembly. I returned here after college because I knew from personal experience that Madison is a great place to settle down and start a family, and the number one reason for that is our schools. I want every child, regardless of race or income, to have the same opportunities I had.
So I've been deeply concerned to see our public school system is at risk, not just when the state cuts funding or proposes vouchers, but also when the president of the school board supports a proposal that would take millions of taxpayer dollars out of our public schools to give to an unaccountable charter school. Whatever problems exist in Madison's public schools have solutions in the public schools, and we should look for them there.
What is the best way to address the district's achievement gap? How would you balance the needs of high achieving and low achieving students?
I believe the best way to address the district's achievement gap is the current approach of Multi-tiered Systems of Instruction and Support (RTI2). While being careful not to implement too many programs at once, our achievement gap plan focuses on increasing literacy for all students while paying particular attention to those at the low end of the attainment scale.
Most students' needs are met in general educational settings. Some students need just a few interventions to stay on track. Still others need more intensive support and/or challenge to reach their potential. Using this approach, we are able to balance the needs of our high achieving and low achieving students.
The first step in addressing the achievement gap is understanding the source of the problem: poverty. The gap in achievement between white and non-white students gets a lot smaller when you compare students from similar economic backgrounds to each other. The fewer resources that families have, the less they can devote to supporting their children's education, and it shows in the data. Parents who didn't finish high school themselves are less able to help their kids with their homework. Parents who work late to put food on the table are not going to have as much time to read to the their kids. Parents who struggle to keep their kids in new clothes are less able to afford to put their kids in enriching summer programs.
The district's goal should be to ensure all kids have opportunities to learn outside of the classroom, regardless of their economic background. A great way to achieve this is to work to create partnerships with the city, the county, non-profits, or any other organization that shares this goal.