Low-Income Students Face a Wide Opportunity Gap, New School Report Cards Show

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 3:19 PM by

Low-income students have a much greater chance of attending a failing school than do other students, according to new school performance information released this week by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. This news comes on the heels of an announcement that Wisconsin is among the states that have made the deepest cuts in state support for K-12 education since the recession.

Statewide, 1 in 11 students from low-income families attend schools that do not meet the Department of Public Instruction’s expectations. In comparison, just 1 in 102 students who are not from low-income families attend failing schools.

The student bodies of the highest-performing schools and the lowest-performing schools look drastically different, according to the information released by DPI. In the lowest-performing schools, 84% of students are economically disadvantaged, compared to only 16% of the students in the highest-performing schools, as show in the chart below. Students in the lowest-performing schools are far more likely to have disabilities or difficulty speaking English, compared to students in the highest-performing schools. 


One big question that remains unanswered about the deep disparities in our school system is whether the opportunity gap for students in Wisconsin is growing or shrinking. Unfortunately, since this is only the second year that DPI has issued school report cards, it’s difficult to discern much of a trend. That said, the concentration of low-income students and students with limited English proficiency in failing schools increased slightly between last year and this year; there was no change in the concentration of students with disabilities. Whether the changes from last year to this year are part of a longer-term pattern leading to a growing opportunity gap remains unclear.

The news about the opportunity gap for low-income students comes just a few days after a report that showed that Wisconsin made deeper cuts to education in recent years than all but a few states. When Wisconsin’s cuts to state investment in education since the recession rank second in the nation when measured on a dollars per student basis. In 2014, Wisconsin will spend $1,038 less per student in state aid for K-12 education than it did in 2008, after adjusting for inflation. What’s particularly disturbing is that most of those cuts have come from equalization aid to schools, which equalizes the fiscal capacity of school districts. Cuts to equalization aid undermine Wisconsin’s commitment to establishing equality of opportunity for all students.

For Wisconsin to take full advantage of opportunities for economic growth, we need to make sure that all our students attend thriving schools, regardless of student family income. Deep cuts to education make it more difficult for Wisconsin to invest in schools that offer a high-quality education to every student.

Tamarine Cornelius

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