With both houses of Wisconsin's legislature in the hands of Republicans, Governor Scott Walker is laying bare his education priorities as lawmakers get ready to kick off the next legislative session. According to the Journal Sentinel, this year the focus will be on attracting more teachers to Milwaukee schools by eliminating the district's residency requirement, instituting bonus pay for schools that show gains under the new state assessment system, and making school vouchers available to families in more cities.
Walker laid out his proposals during a meeting with the JS editors and other reporters at a Milwaukee private school. He spoke at length about the issues facing the state's education system, specifically mentioning the challenges confronting schools in Wisconsin's cities.
The move to eliminate the residency requirement currently in place for Milwaukee Public Schools specifically aims to make it easier to draw and retain high quality teachers to the district. He noted that many good teachers leave their jobs and go elsewhere when they themselves become parents and are forced to enroll their kids in underperforming local schools in their neighborhoods.
"If you have someone who's a great teacher starting out at MPS – and this is not stereotyped, this is often the case – has kids, the kids get school age and they decide they're going to move to Brown Deer, Wauwatosa or somewhere else; it's just unfortunate that for that teacher you don't have an option to try to keep him or her within the Milwaukee Public Schools system. It's not that they're saying they don't want to be there, it's that it's based on not just their career but their family."
Milwaukee's school board has been unsuccessful in dealing with the problem of residency, as board members could not agree to allow new teachers three years to establish their residency in the city rather than the current period of one year.
Last week, the board couldn't muster up enough votes to pass the proposal submitted by Superintendent Gregory Thornton. Thornton explained that the residency requirement needed to be loosened because it would allow hiring from a wider pool of candidates at the time when an increasing number of teachers are retiring.
Walker has also signaled that he was interested in expanding the voucher program – currently running only in Milwaukee and Racine – to more cities in the coming years. He said that the choices of cities will be made after a period of study to determine if the quality of schools and community demand makes each city a smart choice.
In recent weeks, Walker has expressed support for tying school performance in some way to a stream of funding. This has made some educators nervous, considering many low-performing schools serve a predominantly impoverished and/or non-English speaking population that sets them up for low scores based on historical demographic trends. That scenario would seem to perennially reward higher performing suburban schools, which serve students from demographic backgrounds that usually correlate with higher test scores.