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Wisconsin’s biggest education stories of 2023

WPR covered UW campus budget struggles, book banning, absenteeism and more

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Students walking along Johnson St. on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
Students walking along Johnson St. on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Bill Martens/WPR

Wisconsin K-12 schools, colleges and universities made headlines.

WPR education reporter Corrinne Hess joined “Morning Edition” host Alex Crowe to chat about the top Wisconsin education stories in 2023.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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Alex Crowe: Let’s start with the UW system. There’s been a lot of action in the UW system this year, especially with a fight over funding with the UW system from the state legislature. Where do we stand after everything that’s happened this past year?

Corrinne Hess: After a six-month budget standoff, the UW System struck a deal with Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. This happened during a tumultuous week. There were five meetings in seven days. In the end, the deal gave raises that were already approved in the state budget to 34,000 UW System employees, and some UW building projects that were also already approved will move forward. That includes a new engineering building at UW-Madison and also some renovations to buildings at UW-Whitewater, which is Robin Vos’ alma mater.

In exchange for that, DEI and some other UW administrative positions will be frozen through 2026. UW-Madison is also going to have to end this Target of Opportunity program. That program was put into place to recruit diverse faculty. UW-Madison is also going to be required to admit the top 5% of academic performers graduating from Wisconsin high schools. All the other UW schools will have to admit the top 10%.

AC: When we talk specifically about funding, there has been a lot of pushback, at least throughout the year, with the state operating with this surplus and funding being withheld for the schools, especially while some of these schools are operating at a massive loss. Can you tell us where we stand on which universities are facing some serious funding issues going into next year?

CH: They’re all facing issues. There’s been years of declining enrollment, and other market conditions that have put most of the system’s two and four-year campuses in cost-cutting mode. Out of the 13 four-year schools, 10 have budget deficits.

The ones that we’ve already seen cut are UW-Oshkosh, UW-Platteville and UW-Parkside. Oshkosh has eliminated 200 staff members, Platteville has announced that they’re eliminating 111 positions, and in November, we heard Parkside will be eliminating 10% of their workforce. That’s about 50 positions. I’m afraid that we’re going to just keep seeing cuts like this.

AC: Let’s (talk about) those K-12 schools here in Wisconsin. We’ve seen a lot of different stories throughout the year involving school boards and book banning. Can you give us some examples of what’s been happening in some of these school districts and why these bans are being pushed?

CH: At least six Wisconsin school districts have recently decided to pull books from their library shelves, or they’ve had significant challenges to the books offered to students. Two examples that come to mind are Menomonee Falls, that district banned 33 titles. That decision even prompted one of the banned authors Jodi Picoult, to (reach out to) the district for an explanation. The district never got back to her.

Then Elkhorn, which is in Walworth County, one parent was able to request 444 books be pulled from the shelves. Since then, nearly all the books have been put back on the shelves. That school board is going to talk in January about changing its policy.

AC: You also have reported that it was one of the largest requests in the entire country when it comes to book banning. So is this just happening here or is it all over the place in some sort of coordination?

CH: It seems like a national effort. Some reporting has shown that these groups — Moms for Liberty, or there’s another group called Gays Against Grooming — are pushing this. Our state ACLU has filed some open records requests to try to find out who’s behind it. I think people don’t think that this one parent in Elkhorn is really acting alone, although, you know, it’s going to just take some additional work to figure it out.

AC: It’s been a busy year, anything you’re keeping an eye on as we head to 2024 in the world of education?

CH: I believe these book bans will continue across the state. There are school board elections happening in the spring. I’m curious to see where the ideology goes. We’ve done a lot of reporting on absenteeism in Milwaukee Public Schools, but statewide and actually nationwide, new numbers on that come out in March. Also, I am curious to see what will happen with UW having to admit students based on their performance, because some of these schools already have waiting lists.

You can hear the extended version of this conversation on the Wisconsin Today podcast.

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