In Wisconsin, less than 50 percent of K-12 students are proficient in reading and math. Rural schools struggle to keep up with urban schools, and many students don’t have access to the important courses they need. Wisconsin also has the largest racial achievement gap of any state. The abrupt shift to virtual education from the coronavirus has only exacerbated Wisconsin’s education challenges.
For several years, Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) has developed research and policy ideas to improve educational opportunities for Wisconsin students. WILL has been hard at work promoting policies that ensure all children have access to the quality education they deserve. Through a recent survey of parents in the state, WILL learned these reforms are needed now more than ever.
To learn how parents and students were handling the shift to remote education, WILL conducted a survey of Wisconsin parents with children age five to 17. The survey consisted of 400 parents from Wisconsin’s 422 school districts. It revealed a mix of good and bad news. The good news? Eighty percent of parents indicated some level of satisfaction with the education their children are receiving during the shutdown. The bad news? Sixteen percent said their students are not learning new material, and almost 30 percent didn’t think their child will be prepared for the next grade. This is concerning and important intel for state lawmakers as they consider policies to address the problems brought on by COVID-19.
The survey also revealed parents are taking money out of their own wallets to pay for virtual education materials. As many parents lost their job and are struggling financially as a result of the coronavirus, this is an added burden that weighs on many families. Some families will need financial help to continue educating their children at home. To address this problem, WILL encouraged policymakers to expand 529 savings accounts to permit families to use the accounts for expenses incurred from learning-at-home during the coronavirus shutdown.
WILL’s survey found 29 percent of parents are interested in accessing online courses offered at other schools. This finding amplified the importance of WILL’s efforts to expand course access for students. WILL advanced legislation, currently in the Wisconsin Senate, that would allow any elementary, middle, or high school student to take up to two courses at any other school, including public, charter, and private. Students can do so without dis-enrolling from their school, and they can take the courses “in-person” or remotely. Even before the pandemic, many students didn’t have access to certain courses because their school didn’t offer those classes. In Northeastern Wisconsin, for example, none of the high schools offer Spanish or economics, and 78 percent do not offer government or computer science. This bill gives students access to those important classes. Since the courses can be taken remotely, it also helps schools and students overcome some of the problems related to the coronavirus.
According to the survey, there are quite a few parents with children who are not learning new material during the coronavirus shutdown. Respondents to this question had children who attended large districts including Milwaukee Public Schools, Racine Unified, Kenosha Unified, and Madison Metropolitan School District. Spending transparency will empower parents to understand how education resources are being spent and help keep school districts accountable.
WILL helped introduce a bill in the Wisconsin Legislature that would improve the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s accounting system and how they report funding received by public schools. “Bringing more transparency will allow for a bigger conversation in our state about the complex state funding formulas and why we need to go to student-based learning,” said Libby Sobic, director and legal counsel of education policy at WILL.
To learn more about WILL’s education initiatives and how they are helping Wisconsin families, visit will-law.org.
Wisconsin Parent Survey Briefing on Education and COVID-19
Zoom presentation on results of a Wisconsin parent survey on COVID-19 and education
Poll: Education During Coronavirus