Tim Cullen: State lawmakers could do more to help public schools help needy children

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Sen. Tim Cullen
Sunday, March 30, 2014

Too many children are uncared for, unattended, unfed, unhugged, unwatched and undisciplined at home. I coined the term “un-child” to identify those children who struggle at home and often enter their classrooms unprepared to learn.

They may not have someone at home who makes sure their homework is completed, much less someone who helps them with their assignments. Many of these children have dysfunctional home lives with little, if any, direction. Some are successful anyway, but many are unable to overcome these overwhelming odds.

At a local elementary school I visited last year, a student was asked why she did not return a permission slip signed by her parents to attend a field trip. She calmly explained that her father was in jail and her mom was passed out on the couch. It was heartbreaking to hear this child describe her home life in such a matter-of-fact way, as if that was a normal occurrence around her house.

Public school staff and teachers work hard to make sure the un-child has a place to turn to for attention and direction. However, we are seeing a growing movement to lay all of the blame on public schools for the performance of some students, while ignoring the 17 hours per day that children are not in school. Unfortunately, many opponents of public education are doing just that in an attempt to diminish the work of our public educators.

Given the most recent biennial budget passed by the state Legislature, the un-child is in danger of falling further behind. The budget established a statewide voucher school system, creating two unequal Wisconsin education systems, both competing for the same taxpayer dollars. The voucher system sends state taxpayer funding to private schools that have little, if any, accountability. There is no guarantee that the money will result in better educational opportunities for any children.

While voucher proponents seem willing to ignore the underlying issue that many public school students face—difficult home lives—I found it necessary to do my part to try to address the issue. I recently introduced a proposal that would have set aside $10 million for a special fund for public schools. Using the fund, the Legislature’s budget-writing committee would award grants to school districts that apply for funding for programs designed to address issues facing students with dysfunctional home lives. These programs could be after-school classes, summer programs, family-involvement events, or any other ideas that districts have that would help address their specific needs.

As a former school board member, I know that local schools can find unique ways to address the needs of the “un-child.” However, we need to make sure they have the resources to meet their goals.

I was disappointed to see this reasonable proposal voted down on a party-line vote. Despite this setback, I will continue to support our public schools and their efforts to help students with disruptive family situations overcome any obstacles to a successful education.

Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, serves Wisconsin’s 15th Senate District, including most of Rock County and the Whitewater area. He can be reached at 1-800-334-1438 or 608-266-2253; at Sen.Cullen@legis.wi.gov; or at P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707.

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