Wisconsin's Public Education System Sets Up Black Students to Fail
Teacher Ingrid Walker-Henry, right, with her 10-year-old son, Miles, at their North Side Milwaukee home. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Many say Wisconsin worst state to raise Black child due to widest disparity gaps in the country.

Editor’s Note: This story is the second in a three-part series that looks at the disparities faced by African Americans who live in Wisconsin. In most cases, the disparities here are among the worst in the country. Since the killing of George Floyd, rallies that began solely to address systemic racism in policing are now broadening to call for reform in other areas.

Click HERE for Part 1 on disparities in the criminal justice system.

Click HERE for Part 2 on health care disparities.

When Ingrid Walker-Henry spends time with her 10-year-old son Miles, she sees a kind-hearted, active boy who loves to build objects, a kid who enjoys learning.

However, despite his promising start in life, despite the fact she is a teacher herself, Walker-Henry worries about her son’s future and whether he can receive a high-quality education as a Black student in Milwaukee public schools.  

Walker-Henry has sought out the best education she can find to match her son’s interests and aptitudes. She weighs available education programs against surrounding her son with people who look like him, hoping to find a comfortable mix of both so he can find success in school. 

Walker-Henry said she received that kind of education. As a Black girl growing up in Milwaukee, she attended working-class neighborhood elementary and middle schools before graduating from Riverside University High School in 1995. She had access to a gym, art, and foregin language in addition to math, reading, English, science and other coursework. After school clubs were plentiful. 

But Walker-Henry’s son and his fellow Black students face a different reality today, numerous studies and statistics reveal. Figures show that all too often in Milwaukee and elsewhere across Wisconsin, those students don’t receive the education they need to set themselves up for success as adults. 

Instead, many major indicators ranking academic achievement reveal that Wisconsin ranks at or near the bottom of all states nationally when comparing students of color and their white counterparts. 

Test scores in all subjects, at all levels, reveal among the highest gaps nationally between students of color and whites. Black students rank particularly low when compared to whites. 

For example, on standardized math scores in eighth grade — deemed a key indicator of math achievement — the disparity between Black and white students in Wisconsin was the largest in the country in 2018 and has been significant for years. 

Out-of-school suspension data shows a similar result. In Wisconsin, Black students are 7.5 times more likely than whites to be suspended from school. That disparity is second-highest among U.S. states; only Illinois has a higher difference.

In Milwaukee public schools, about 80 percent of suspensions each year are for Black students. During the 2015-16 school year, 25 percent of Black students in Racine’s public schools were suspended, compared to 7.2 percent of Latinos and 5 percent of whites. 

“They mirror the practices of our criminal justice system,” Maya Neal, political director of the advocacy group Leaders Igniting Transformation, said of suspension policies that target Black students. “It enforces the school-to-prison pipeline … It treats them like prisoners, therefore preparing them for the system that targets them as young Black and brown people.”

The trend continues when measuring the number of Black and white students attaining bachelor’s degrees. Fourteen percent of Blacks in Wisconsin have a post-secondary degree compared to 30 percent for whites, the largest disparity in the U.S. 

“They say Wisconsin is the worst state in the nation to raise a Black child,” Walker-Henry said. “When you hear some of these numbers, it’s hard to argue that.”

Those stark differences in educational achievement have ramifications for those students’ futures, according to a report released in October 2019 by the UW-Madison Center on Wisconsin Strategy. The report, titled “Race in the Heartland; Wisconsin’s Extreme Racial Disparity,” details not only significant educational gaps between Blacks and whites but the limitations those gaps mean when students reach adulthood. 

Wisconsin has the largest employment disparity of any U.S. state among white and Black workers ages 25-54, the report states. 

While 85 percent of white residents that age are employed, just 61 percent of Blacks of the same age have jobs, the biggest difference among all states. Likewise, the unemployment difference between Black and whites at the time the report was released — nearly 9 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively — was also the biggest disparity in the nation. 

Among other significant differences in the report is the gap in median household income. In Wisconsin, that figure at the time of the report was $59,500 for whites and $29,000 for Blacks, the third-largest discrepancy nationally. And one of every three Black children in Wisconsin lives in poverty, a rate 3.5 times higher than the figure for whites.

The report’s authors note that racial inequality in Wisconsin is “neither natural nor inevitable.” Economic outcomes for African Americans in the state topped the national average several decades ago.

“But across the last 40 years, opportunity and outcomes for Black residents and the state have fallen below national averages and the racial divide has grown,” they said. 

LaKeshia Myers knows those troubling statistics and others all too well. An African American Milwaukee native, a former Milwaukee public schools educator who is now a Democratic state Assembly member, Myers said she has watched as funding cuts to public education, white flight from the city to suburbs and other factors have widened the educational opportunity gap in the city and state she loves.     

“Wisconsin is falling further and further behind because we will not let go of our rust belt image and our yearning for yesteryear,” Rep. Myers said. “We have to start thinking toward the figure, and recognize the important role education plays in creating a stronger economy and a better world for all of us.”

‘A different place’

Myers remembers a time when obtaining a quality education as a Black student attending Milwaukee public schools seemed more attainable for African Americans. The daughter of two teachers in the district who graduated from high school in 2002, she said she had “an excellent education.”

However, after obtaining a teaching degree and landing a job as a teacher in that same district, Rep. Myers said she realized funding reductions and student disparities were taking a toll. That process was accelerated by the controversial Act 10 legislation in 2011 approved by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature and subsequent budget cuts. 

“When I came back to teach in the district, it felt like a different place,” Rep. Myers said. “You can’t keep cutting from education and think that you’re still going to meet students’ needs, especially when those needs have been growing.”

Sequanna Taylor credits the education she received at Milwaukee neighborhood public schools as well despite being a Black child. But as she subsequently worked as an adult for the school district as a parent engagement specialist, she noticed funding inequities had developed between predominantly Black city schools and their much wealthier counterparts in Milwaukee suburbs. 

Schools comprised mostly of students of color typically have much larger class sizes than those made up mainly of whites, Taylor said, and have available outdated textbooks versus Chromebooks and other technology. School buildings in mostly white suburban districts tend to be sleek, spacious and modern, a far cry from many crowded, crumbling, outdated facilities many Blacks and other students of color attend.  

“As I got more involved in education I began to see the injustices,” she said. “I began to see the barriers in place that keep Blacks and other students of color from doing as well in school.” 

Milwaukee County Supervisor and School Board member Sequanna Taylor, right, with her 14-year-old son, Ramaro “Bam” Hopkins, Jr. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Taylor dealt with those issues firsthand as the parent of three children, one of whom is in high school and two of whom have graduated. She is involved in numerous Milwaukee and state education groups and last year was elected to the Milwaukee school board. She said she has 10 nieces and nephews currently in Milwaukee public schools and “I worry about the kind of education they have available to them.”

‘Absolutely heartbreaking’

Reasons for the achievement gap between students of color and whites are many. Chief among them, educators and others said, are a host of challenges children faced by families in poverty, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color. 

“We cannot talk about the education of Black and other students of color without talking about the barriers they face outside of the school,” Taylor said. “The environment outside has a huge impact on what happens inside the classroom.” 

Symantha Robinson sees the adversity children of color face every day as a teacher at Schenk Elementary School on Madison’s east side. Many come from families who are poor, some living below the federal poverty line. Some lack secure housing, and regular access to healthy food 

“When you learn about the situations some of these students face, it’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Robinson said.

Educators take extra steps to help students overcome poverty, she said. But many of the challenges they face extend beyond the education realm, and schools lack enough resources to adequately address them. Students who grow up in poverty face myriad hurdles, food and housing insecurity among them, and face emotional challenges that their wealthier counterparts don’t. 

When students in high-poverty neighborhoods attend the same schools, educational and social needs grow. But in many cases, Robinson said, those schools receive less per-pupil funding, not more, leading to too few teachers and other resources to meet students’ many needs.   

Ron Martin, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said education funding inequities in the state leave too many students — especially some of those in high-poverty areas — without enough resources to succeed educationally. 

Those differences result in larger class size, fewer up-to-date learning materials and other educational shortcomings that lead to poorer student outcomes, Martin said. The growth of charter and private schools and rule changes allowing them to receive state funding are stretching resources even further, he said.

“Some of the schools that need the most resources aren’t receiving what they need to educate students with the funding model we have now,” Martin said.  

Failed promise

Racist policies and attitudes toward students of color happen in communities across Wisconsin, Blacks and others who have experienced those behaviors told UpNorthNews. People in Green Bay, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Wausau and smaller communities elsewhere in the state said they also deal with negative attitudes based on the color of their skin. 

As one of a handful of Black students in the Chippewa Falls school district, Casaiya Keyser said she frequently was called racist names. It wasn’t uncommon, she said, to see vehicles of her fellow students in the parking lot bearing Confederate flags. 

Her senior year in high school was especially difficult, she said, when instances of her asking such questions as why the school’s curriculum didn’t include a more varied account of Black history were often met with resistance. 

“I was described as loud, angry, just basically every stereotype of a Black woman,” Keyser, who graduated from Chippewa Falls High School in 2018, recalled. “When I questioned things, I was the one who was seen as the problem.”   

Savion Castro felt similarly growing up in the Madison school district. The 2013 graduate of La Follette High School said he and other students of color were taught by few people who looked like them. 

“It became pretty clear early on the faces of education didn’t look like you,” he said. “It was more like we were a problem to be solved.” 

These days Castro views the educational racial disparities from a viewpoint of a Madison school board member. He was appointed to the board last year and elected in April. He noted how significantly different income levels between whites and Blacks lead to “drastic levels of inequality” between those groups and large academic achievement disparities. 

With so many Black students experiencing adverse experiences, food and housing insecurity, and access to early childhood education, those issues must be better addressed before those students will experience success in the classroom, Castro said. 

“Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, the way we can give all kids a chance at a better life,” he said. “And by shortchanging funding for education and other social programs, we are reneging on that promise.”

Work remains

Every time she drives by a suburban school, Taylor, the Milwaukee school board member, compares those upscale facilities to the old buildings in her home district. 

Every time Castro hears more statistics about the high suspension and arrest rates of Black students, he more firmly believes changes to policing practices are in order. Every time Myers, the Democratic lawmaker from Milwaukee, hears another statistic about students of color lagging their White counterparts, she knows more work remains.   

“It won’t be easy,” Myers said when asked about possible solutions. “But we have to find a way to do better by our students of color. We just have to.”