Reading, Common Core, and Choice: Dissecting Gov. Walker’s Education C.V.

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 10, 2015 3 min read
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Cross-posted from the Politics K-12 blog

By Alyson Klein

Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wisc., is expected to announce his presidential candidacy really, really soon. So exactly what might his education platform be? And how have his policies played out in Wisconsin?

Walker offered up some major clues as to where he might go on K-12 in an op-ed, published yesterday in the Des Moines Register. The piece plays up his (highly divisive, but ultimately successful) push to roll back collective bargaining protections and teacher tenure in the Badger State. And he touted his work in expanding school choice programs, including charter schools.

Those policies, he wrote in the op-ed, are “working.” Walker claims that third grade reading scores are up, as are graduation rates.

So is that true? Yes, but Wisconsin’s success closely tracks national trends. So it’s almost impossible to say for sure that Walker’s policies were the secret sauce.

Poltifact examined the third-grade reading claim when Walker made a similar statement last year. They found that generally, third grade scores have gone up over the course of Walker’s tenure, but the trend line hasn’t been going up the whole time, and, in fact, it dipped a bit in 2013-14. Compare Politifact’s examination to the chart of Wisconsin reading test results for 2013-14 below:

But overall, Wisconsin trend lines in fourth grade reading on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (aka the Nation’s Report Card) have increased during Walker’s tenure but their rate of improvement, from an average score of 220 in 2009, before Walker came into an average score of 221 in 2013, when he’d been in office for a few years, are almost identical. Check out Wisconsin’s NAEP data here, and see the trend lines in the graphic below from the NAEP:

Graduation rates tell a similar story. Wisconsin’s graduation rate is up, but the nation’s is up too. And, in fact, the Badger State is growing a little slower than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (see chart below).

But again, it’s hard to say exactly how Walker’s policies have affected things. After all, the students graduating from high school this year started their educations long before he was in office.

What’s more, Walker also writes that he opposes the Common Core State Standards. But his actual record in Wisconsin regarding the common core is mixed. He wasn’t a major critic of the standards when he took office in 2010, but he wasn’t a prominent supporter either. Then, last summer, he called on his state to “repeal” the standards. And then he shifted his position a bit, saying Common Core could be optional for districts. Which is pretty much where Wisconsin was to begin with.

So what would Walker actually do as president? In the op-ed, he said he’d like to shift K-12 spending out of Washington and to states and schools. It’s kinda tough to tell what that actually means, since most federal aid already goes to states already via the U.S. Department of Education. Does Walker mean he wants to trim the agency’s budget and staff? That wouldn’t likely mean much more money for states and districts, since the department spends less than $2 billion on management, which wouldn’t go far if it spread across 50 states.

But there’s one D.C.-based program Walker wrote that he’d like to expand: The D.C. voucher program. Growing that scholarship for low-income kids in the District of Columbia was pretty much the K-12 centerpiece of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2008 bid for the Republican nod.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.