Push by Lawmakers to Break Up Racine School District Could Segregate Students by Race, Income

Thursday, October 5, 2017 at 10:25 AM by

A provision that Wisconsin lawmakers included in the state budget would stratify students in the Racine area by income and race and make it more difficult for the Racine school district to improve academic opportunities for students. The budget encourages  wealthier, less racially diverse areas of the Racine school district to break off and form their own separate districts, concentrating poorer students in the remaining portion of the district.

Racine Unified School District is the fifth-largest district in the state, with about 19,000 students spread out over 31 schools. The school district includes the City of Racine as well as several other municipalities including the villages of Caledonia (about 25,000 residents), Mount Pleasant (26,000 residents), and Sturtevant (5,000 residents).

Students in the Racine school district already face obstacles to academic success. Racine has a higher proportion of students from low-income families than other similarly-situated school districts in Wisconsin and the lowest share of adults with a college degree, according to a study from the Public Policy Forum. The Racine school district itself also faces challenges, including a financial hardship created by lawmakers: The state docks the district about $9 million a year to offset the cost of providing private schools in the area with public money for tuition vouchers.

Instead of providing resources or methods for the Racine school district to address these challenges, lawmakers included a measure in the budget that would divide the current district into separate wealthier and poorer areas. If the Racine district receives a score this year (as it did in 2015-16) that puts it in the lowest of five performance categories on the state’s school district report cards, villages in the Racine school district would be allowed to hold a referendum on creating a separate school district. If the Racine school district scores in the lowest performance category for three years in a row, then the new measure requires municipalities to hold a referendum on forming a separate school district. (The Racine school district could slow this process by a year by limiting opportunities for staff to weigh in on the contents of the employee handbook. )

In contrast to the normal process for creating a new school district, voters in the remaining portion of the Racine school district would not have an opportunity to weigh in on the split via referendum. By including this provision in the budget, lawmakers are disenfranchising voters who live in the remaining portion of the school district.

A great deal hangs on the score that the Racine school district receives on the school report cards. The report cards are based on a series of complex formulas aimed at measuring school performance and accountability, only some of which incorporate differences in student demographics between districts. The complexity of the assessment method and the resulting difficulty in identifying how different inputs would affect the district’s grade, make it a flawed tool for determining whether parts of the district should be spun off into separate districts. An example of how complicated the formula is: the technical guide to the state’s report card system runs a whopping 69 pages and includes calculations like those shown below.

school formula 2

 

If one or more villages split off, the resulting school district will look very different from the current Racine district. The villages of Calendonia, Mount Pleasant, and Sturtevant all have child poverty rates that are less than a third of the rate in the City of Racine. The typical household income for families in those villages is about half again as much as for families in the City of Racine. And in all three of those villages, less than a third of the school-age children are of color, compared to 65% in the City of Racine.

Segregating districts by income and race

If wealthier areas did split off from the Racine school district, they might be able to take a large share of the school district’s assets with them. That’s because state law specifies that assets in the new districts should be allocated based on the ratio of the value of taxable property. The City of Racine includes 61% of the school-age children living in the school district, but only 37% of the property value of the district. If the property-rich villages secede and form their own district or districts, it sets up a scenario in which the new, poorer Racine school district could potentially be forced to pay cash to the new districts in order to meet legal requirements for allocating district assets.

If Racine school district splits, lion's share of district's assets could go to wealthier areas

Residents of the villages appear to have mixed opinions about whether to secede from the Racine school district. In 2015, residents of both Caledonia and Sturtevant approved non-binding referendums that called for separating from Racine and setting up their own districts, but the margins were narrow. In fact, Sturtevant’s referendum passed by just six votes.

Leaving the Racine school district could result in a property tax hike for residents of the new school district. A split off, should it occur, would likely result in creating a new district or districts that would qualify for little or no state general aid, meaning the new district would be almost entirely dependent upon property taxes—which could result in higher property taxes for residents of the new district.

All children in Racine deserve  an excellent public school education, regardless of whether they live in one of the better-off villages or the City of Racine. Splitting off the wealthier, less racially diverse areas from the rest of the Racine district will make it harder for the students who are left behind to achieve their full academic opportunity. Lawmakers should focus on making sure that the current school district has the resources and assistance from the state that it needs to make sure every child succeeds, regardless of zip code.

Tamarine Cornelius

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