‘A school year unlike any other’: State’s top educator to seek boost in special ed, mental health services

Carolyn Stanford Taylor

The coronavirus pandemic laid bare the stark inequities in access and opportunities among school children in Wisconsin, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor said Thursday in her annual State of Education address.

She said she will seek additional state dollars to narrow at least some of those gaps, particularly in the areas of special education and mental health services, in her 2021-23 budget proposal.

“Every child has been impacted in some way by COVID-19,” Stanford Taylor said.

“At a time when more Wisconsin families are facing unemployment and economic anxiety, homelessness and hunger — on top of the health impacts of a disease that itself disproportionately affects communities of color — it is imperative schools and educators have the resources, equipment and support they need to deliver the education and school services every child deserves.”

Stanford Taylor did not specify dollar amounts in her speech or in a news conference that followed.

She said the $221 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds provided to Wisconsin schools in recent months helped defray the immediate costs associated with the pandemic, but that they are not enough to address the long-term impact.

“We need additional funding. Our districts, especially in the area of special education, have not been funded to the level that they need to, and they’ve had to take money from the general fund to pay for special education,” she said.

Stanford Taylor called 2020 “a year of profound change” for education in Wisconsin. She lauded the efforts of educators, families, and business and philanthropic partners who worked together as the pandemic unfolded to ensure children had access to laptops and internet service, to celebrate graduates, and to prepare and distribute more than 31 million meals.

The result, she said, “is the start of a school year unlike any other in our state’s history,” with some students in schools and others working remotely.

The pandemic, she said, has “underscored the critical role teachers play in the lives of their students” and offered “an unparalleled opportunity to reframe and reimagine (education) in a more inclusive manner.”

She said that opportunity includes developing and recruiting a more diverse educator workforce, disrupting systems that create disparities among students and having difficult conversations about race and inequities in Wisconsin schools and communities.

“This summer, I was inspired to see so many people — particularly young people — of all races and ethnicities coming together with one voice to acknowledge the lived experiences of Black Americans and demanding racial and social justice. Their voices and their leadership energizes many of us around the country and the world, and reminds us change begins with us,” she said.

“It is time to finally shed the title of having the largest Black-white achievement gap in the country; to examine our systems, policies, programs, and ways of engaging with students, families, and each other; to truly listen to the voices of Black and other marginalized communities and deliver inclusive learning experiences that meet the needs of every child.”

Contact Annysa Johnson at anjohnson@jrn.com or 414-224-2061. Follow her on Twitter at @JSEdbeat. And join the Journal Sentinel conversation about education issues at www.facebook.com/groups/WisconsinEducation.