By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Watchdog
MILWAUKEE — Pointing to widespread failure in Milwaukee Public Schools and elsewhere around the state, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo is calling for major reforms of the state Department of Public Instruction.
What’s got Sanfelippo fired up?
A recent press release from DPI Superintendent Tony Evers claimed once again that recent state budgets have set up schools to fail.
“In the last four state budgets, our public schools have taken a back seat to other priorities. As overall state spending has increased, our commitment to public schools has not kept pace. That trend has caused Wisconsin to fall almost below the national average in expenditures per student,” Evers said in the statement.
While Wisconsin’s education budget declined 5.2 percent between 2008 and 2013, per-pupil expenditures were higher than 29 other states, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Wisconsin spent $11,071 per student, $371 more than the national average. And 16 states had deeper cuts to public education, including public schools-friendly California, which cut per-pupil spending by 14.5 percent over the period.
Sanfelippo said Evers and DPI need to stop blaming the Legislature for failures in Milwaukee and elsewhere around the state.
“That’s just a cheap cop-out on (Evers’) part to try to cover up for the fact that his department is failing miserably at doing its job,” the lawmaker said.
“It’s ironic that DPI is talking about failures when they have been failing children in Milwaukee Public Schools for years by turning a blind eye to the problems in the district,” Sanfelippo wrote in a recent column. “DPI’s blatant unwillingness to hold MPS accountable has allowed the state’s largest school district to be a perennial failure, which calls into question DPI’s ability to carry out its core mission.”
MPS is the only school district in the state that failed to meet expectations in the 2013-14 school year, according to the latest available state report cards.
DPI has identified 55 MPS schools that fail to meet expectations, representing 83.3 percent of all failing schools in Wisconsin.
But it’s not just Milwaukee.
Madison’s graduation rate for black students is 55 percent. The Madison suburb of Middleton is 52 percent.
Statewide, less than 37 percent of students were proficient in reading, according to the latest data.
Sanfelippo said if there were a chain of hospitals detrimental to patients’ health, the state Department of Health Services would immediately move in and close those hospitals down or require that they improve.
“Yet DPI turns a blind eye and they allow these failures to continue year after year,” the lawmaker said.
Sanfelippo asserts Evers hides behind his position as a constitutionally elected department head and that is why accountability is lacking at DPI.
Department spokesman Thomas McCarthy says the state superintendent is directly accountable to the people of Wisconsin, just like lawmakers and the governor, through elections. He said DPI is working with a host of partners to improve Milwaukee’s public schools.
“By working with innovators and reformers in Milwaukee, there has been meaningful progress in student achievement in MPS,” McCarthy said. “We all know there is more to be done, but improvements in MPS will continue to depend on the successful working relationship among Superintendent Evers, Governor Walker, the Legislature, and the local district.”
Sanfelippo said the agency could run much more efficiently and effectively, noting that DPI paid out $36.6 million in salaries and benefits to 415 administrative employees in 2014-15. The figures come from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. DPI spent $140 million on operations and program costs over the school year.
He said it’s up to the Legislature to make DPI more accountable to taxpayers, asserting the agency’s budget could easily be reduced by $50 million to $100 million.
“Let’s stop all of that wasteful spending on administration and put that money directly into the school districts and directly into the classrooms,” Sanfelippo said. “We need to decentralize the educational establishment in this state and put power back in the local districts.”