Public Policy Forum Blog

Public Schooling in Southeast Wisconsin: 2014-15

For the last 30 years, the Public Policy Forum has collected and analyzed education data to produce an annual report on public school districts in southeast Wisconsin.  The latest report, Public Schooling in Southeast Wisconsin: 2014-15, provides updated analyses using new data and trends of student demographics and enrollments, school district finance, and some limited measures of academic achievement.

Past versions of this report have presented and described student academic performance as measured by state assessments. The detailed analysis served to quantify and highlight achievement gaps and showed which districts excelled and which could use further support. Wisconsin shifted to a new assessment – the Badger Exam – for 2014-15, which would limit trend analysis, but would still provide a comparative analysis among the region’s school districts.

The results of the Badger Exam for the 2014-15 school year have not been released and may not be for some time to come. Consequently, this year's report contains no data describing yearly academic achievement. To compensate for the limited data, we provide a deeper exploration of high school achievement measures, such as graduation rates, and the ACT and Advanced Placement exams.

The transition to a new state assessment was just one of several changes to education policy. The state's biennial budget included a number of provisions that alter how students are assessed, how districts operate, and how schools and districts are held accountable. The report provides a comprehensive review of education policy changes resulting from the state budget and other legislation. 

Some key findings include:

Enrollment decline in the region accelerates. Southeast Wisconsin public school enrollment declined by 0.8 percentage points in 2014-15, representing a loss of 2,375 students. Meanwhile, minority enrollment continues to grow at a steady pace in both the region and the state as a whole. While Latino enrollment increased in almost every district in the region, both African American and white student enrollment decreased.

Poverty rates decline. In the region, 44.9% of students in 2014-15 were eligible for the Free or Reduced-Price Lunch program. This is a decline from 46.1% of students in 2013-14 and represents the first time the rate has declined in more than a decade.

College readiness measures show continued growth. For both Advanced Placement and ACT exams, student participation and performance increased at the regional and statewide level. Average ACT scores increased marginally by 0.3 points in the region, while participation increased by 1.6 percentage points.  Graduation rates improved for the fifth straight year, but the region, at 84.5%, still lags behind the state, which ranks third in the nation with a rate of 88.6%.

Per-pupil expenditures in the region grew. Each county in the region saw an increase in per-pupil expenditures from 2012-13 (the latest year for which financial data are available).  Also, for the region as a whole, per-pupil revenues in 2013-14 were $12,045, which represents an increase of 2.5% from the previous year.

Student participation measures show improvement. Attendance increased both regionally and statewide, although the region still lags slightly behind the state. Truancy remains an issue, especially in southeast Wisconsin, where the rate (18.3%) is nearly double that of the state (9.9%). However, the dropout rate improved significantly, falling to 1.7%, its lowest level since at least 1998.

Shifting student numbers and demographics, combined with the overhaul of state assessment and accountability structures, have presented challenges for school and district leaders. The analyses in this report set the stage for continued research and discussion among stakeholders as more data become available. 

Joe Yeado