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New state superintendent sees early childhood education as key to closing racial gap

March 11, 2019
Logan Wroge
Wisconsin State Journal

When Carolyn Stanford Taylor became one of the first black children to attend a formerly whites-only school in her small Mississippi hometown, initial hope and excitement about societal progress soon faded as the school filled its swimming pool with cement.

Growing up during desegregation inspired Stanford Taylor to a career in education, culminating this year with her appointment as Wisconsin’s first African-American state superintendent of public instruction.

Her experience has imbued a desire to create equitable learning environments for children in a state that continues to struggle with closing its racial achievement gaps in test scores and graduation rates.

“If we want to create a society where we’re all contributing, then we have to make sure that we don’t lose anyone along the way,” the 62-year-old Stanford Taylor said in an interview.

Now in charge of the state’s 422 school districts, Stanford Taylor views early childhood education as a crucial element for improving academic performance and reducing the racial achievement gap. She would like to see districts expand 4-year-old kindergarten to full-day and have urban districts explore 3K programs.

“On this very formative end, we’re not prioritizing as much as we should,” she said about early childhood education.

She began the position weeks before Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — her predecessor who appointed the 17-year assistant state superintendent to fill the vacancy — offered an executive budget to a skeptical Republican-controlled Legislature that would boost education spending in Wisconsin by $1.4 billion over the next biennium.

Stanford Taylor said the two-year education spending package is an “equity budget” meant to target Wisconsin’s achievement gaps between races, children with or without disabilities, low-income students and limited-English learners.

“We have to be very intentional about how we’re going to go about making sure that we’re lifting all of those students up, so that there’s a playing field they can compete on,” she said.

Evers is seeking a $606 million boost for special education, $64 million more for mental health programs and $16 million for a new “Urban Excellence Initiative” targeting Wisconsin’s five largest school district, along with changes to the school funding formula that would account for poverty.

Art Rainwater, a former Madison School District superintendent and current UW-Madison professor of educational leadership and policy analysis, said the biggest challenge for a state superintendent, regardless of who is in the position, is financing education, coupled with a large increase in the proportion of low-income students since the start of the millennium. In 2001, 21 percent of Wisconsin school children lived in poverty, according to the Department of Public Instruction. That figure now stands at 41 percent after peaking at 43 percent in 2012.

“Those are the biggest challenges,” Rainwater said. “How do you deal with a changing population, how do you deal with the issues of rural schools and urban schools, and trying to do what’s best for the children.”