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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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A tipping point for Madison schools
Can they survive vouchers, budget cuts, the achievement gap and white flight?
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It's make-or-break time for Wisconsin's public schools.

You would never know it from the Americans for Prosperity school-choice bus tour, but here in Wisconsin we actually have one of the best public school systems in the nation. Why, then, is my old Fox News colleague Juan Williams paying repeated visits, sponsored by AFP, to tell Wisconsinites we ought to imitate the school systems in Florida and Louisiana?

The push to expand private-school vouchers to nine new Wisconsin school districts, including Madison, is turning into one of the most critical battles in the current state budget.

Standardized test results show voucher students underperform when compared with their public-school peers. And the financial drain from a combination of last year's historic budget cuts and the voucher expansion will have a devastating effect on public schools, as Madison's state representative Chris Taylor points out. "It is mind-boggling that Gov. Walker is squeezing every last penny from our neighborhood public schools," Taylor said in a statement accompanying a petition against the voucher expansion.

National school-choice groups are huge players in Wisconsin politics - and a major source of funding for state Republicans. So it is heartening to see a movement that includes some Senate Republicans oppose the voucher expansion. At the very least, we should join them in insisting on an up-or-down vote on vouchers, separate from the overall budget.

All of this was on my mind when I went to Washington, D.C., for spring break. There, I talked to some parents who said their friends are divided among those who are staying in their high-performing suburban public school and those who have fled to expensive private schools.

The question those parents are asking is the same one parents are asking here in Madison: Is this school meeting my child's needs? Many middle-class parents find themselves at a tipping point, wondering if teachers who are trying hard to meet the needs of struggling students are also meeting the needs of their high-achieving sons and daughters. We have to take their concerns seriously if we are going to maintain our excellent schools.

The anxiety that drives school white flight is the flip side of the big discussion we have been having in Madison lately about the achievement gap. How do you answer parents who worry, as one dad put it right before decamping from our neighborhood school, that his children's teachers are stretched too far to try to teach some students who can barely read and others who are immersed in The Lord of the Rings?

My kids' great teachers are better qualified to answer that question than I am. But I see some of the answers at Sherman Middle School, where students of all backgrounds go bird-watching at Warner Park, get hands-on science and engineering experience at Sector67, make a massive arcade out of recyclables, and learn cooking from L'Etoile chef Tory Miller.

I saw it at the talent show the other night at my younger kids' elementary school. Watching the beautiful little girls performing traditional Hmong and Indian dances, the hilarious little boys with their hip-hop inspired gymnastics, the whole multi-ethnic hula-hooping, stilt-walking, jump-roping extravaganza, it was very clear why this democratic institution we call our kids' school works. And why it is really worth hanging onto.

There are a lot of moving moments in my kids' day, when you see the spirit of community - of children learning to take care of each other and accept their many differences - that is a big part of what the public schools are all about.

But one more thing was on my mind as I flew back home from D.C. One of the things I love most about Madison is the fact that there is not the anxiety and pressure and constant striving that you feel in the air on much of the East Coast. There is something to be said for not raising your kids in an elite hothouse, where they learn that life is one big competition for higher social status.

All of that is at stake, right now, in this critical moment for our schools.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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