- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Attracting and retaining teachers would be easier if Wisconsin policymakers created a more stable environment, the superintendent of Madison public schools told a legislative task force studying the issue Tuesday.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham told the task force that constant changes in state policies affecting testing, standards and other areas is a frustration for teachers and makes it more difficult to retain them. She was among several education experts, including University of Wisconsin president Ray Cross, invited to testify at the first meeting of the group.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called together the task force to study a variety of issues affecting the largest urban school districts in Wisconsin. The bipartisan panel toured two Madison schools on Tuesday before the public hearing at the Capitol, and it plans to visit five other large districts in the coming months, said task force chairwoman Rep. Jessie Rodriguez, a Republican from Franklin.

The group will examine early childhood education, mental health and behavioral issues, and teacher training and recruitment. Rodriguez said the task force is looking to recommend tangible solutions to the problems facing schools, with a report coming next year followed by bills for the Legislature to consider in 2017.

The first meeting and school tour focused on teacher recruitment and retention.

Cheatham detailed problems the Madison district faces in finding qualified teachers who reflect the diversity of the student population and also can work in hard-to-fill areas. She said minorities make up half of the student population, but only 3 percent of the district’s teachers are African-American and 5.4 percent are Hispanic.

The highest teacher shortage area in Madison is for bilingual educators, Cheatham said. More than 25 percent of the student population is learning to speak English, she said.

Cheatham said it was important for there to be incentives or tuition breaks to help teachers who are trying to get licensed, especially in areas where there are shortages.

Cross told lawmakers that preparing teachers to work in urban districts must continue to be a priority.

The two Madison schools that task force members toured before the hearing were an elementary and a high school. Two reporters from WKOW-TV in Madison were denied entrance to the high school tour, despite a public hearing notice announcing the tour.

An open meetings law compliance guide created by the attorney general’s office in 2010 said the public must have access to meetings when government bodies conduct tours.

The reporters should not have been turned away, said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

Rachel Strauch-Nelson, a spokeswoman for the district, said it did not know ahead of time that reporters would be coming and did not have student permissions to be filmed prepared.

“We asked if we could get those permissions in line and have them come back - since we were not intending to deny access, but just make sure we were also fulfilling our obligations in terms of student privacy at the same time,” Strauch-Nelson said. “We take our obligations under open meetings, as well as our responsibility for student privacy, seriously and tried to fulfill both of those.”

Rodriguez said she would review the open meetings law before future tours.

The task force plans to tour the Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Green Bay and Eau Claire school districts in coming months.

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This story has been corrected to show the task force chairwoman’s last name is spelled Rodriguez instead of Rodriquez.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP .


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