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Northwoods Political Digest

September 06, 2019

Lawmakers introduce bill to support beginning farmers

Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) and Sen. Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville) have introduced bipartisan legislation to create a student loan reimbursement program for beginning farmers. 

The average age of a farm producer in Wisconsin is 56 years, the lawmakers said, and there are more than twice as many farm producers between the ages of 55 and 74 as between the ages of 25 and 44. 

As Wisconsin’s current farmers age, they say the state must find new farmers to take their place.

“Agriculture is central to Wisconsin’s heritage and to our economy,” said Spreitzer. “We must look for ways to encourage a sustainable future for farming in our state. In order to continue Wisconsin’s strong tradition of farmers that feed our state and beyond, we must recruit and retain beginning farmers from diverse backgrounds.”

Ringhand said Wisconsin has a strong tradition of agricultural excellence.

“Rep. Spreitzer and I are proud to uphold that tradition by introducing this bill, which will support beginning farmers in the first years of their career of service to the state,” Ringhand said.

Whether they obtain an associate or bachelor’s degree, receive a technical certificate, or graduate from the Farm & Industry Short Course program, higher education is essential to the success of today’s beginning farmers, the lawmakers said, adding that, in 2017, 64% of Wisconsin students graduating with a bachelor’s degree borrowed to fund their education. 

The average debt at graduation in 2017-18 was $30,724 for UW System resident undergraduate students, they said.

And a nationwide study of young farmers conducted by the National Young Farmers Coalition highlighted the stark impact of higher education debt on beginning farmers, they said: 53% of respondents are currently farming but are struggling to make their student loan payments, and nearly 30% of respondents did not pursue farming or are waiting to start farming because their student loan debt is more than a farming salary would support.

“I haven’t met a single farmer that has disagreed with the idea that we need to get young people back on the land and carry our agricultural legacy forward in Wisconsin,” said Monticello native and young farmer, Jacob Marty, who raises beef, pork, chickens, and sheep as a sixth generation on his family’s farm. “I know many talented young people that would love to farm, but it isn't feasible for them because of student loan debt. Aiding young people to pursue their farming dreams would reinvigorate our agricultural community with new ideas, energy, and stewardship.”

The Beginning Farmer Student Loan Assistance Program would reimburse up to $30,000 of student debt for those who commit to managing a farm or a component of a farm in Wisconsin for at least five years.

State receives grant to expand maternal mortality review

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) announced this week it will receive a five-year, $1.8 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to decrease pregnancy complications, reduce maternal deaths, and reduce disparities in Wisconsin through an increased investment in the Wisconsin Maternal Mortality Review Team (MMRT).

“Looking closely at maternal deaths and complications during and after pregnancy helps us better understand how to improve outcomes for women and children in the future,” said Jeanne Ayers, state health officer and Division of Public Health administrator. “This grant allows us to zero in on new strategies that can make a difference for the health and well-being of women, their children, and their communities.” 

The MMRT, which includes local public health departments, the Wisconsin Perinatal Quality Collaborative, Wisconsin Medicaid, and the Wisconsin section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, meets quarterly to review cases of maternal death and recommends prevention strategies. The review process is key to understanding why women die during pregnancy, childbirth, and during the year after pregnancy.

The CDC grant will help the MMRT expand its work, review reports faster, and spend more time developing recommendations to improve pregnancy outcomes and decrease disparities in rates of pregnancy complications and maternal death. The rate of severe pregnancy complications is 50% higher for African American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian women than for white women. African American women in Wisconsin die of pregnancy-related causes at five times the rate of white women.

Many of the same factors that affect maternal mortality also influence birth outcomes and infant health. DHS houses several initiatives to improve the health and well-being of pregnant women, children, and youth, including the Title V-funded Maternal and Child Health Program, which works with partners and local health departments to improve the health and well-being of mothers, infants, children, and youth, including children and youth with special health care needs, and their families.

The Women Infants and Children (WIC) program provides nutrition education, breastfeeding education and support, supplemental nutritious foods, and referrals to other health and nutrition services for eligible families. Prenatal Care Coordination, a Medicaid/BadgerCare Plus benefit, helps pregnant women get the support and services they need to have a healthy pregnancy and baby.

The Minority Health Program works to provide leadership for policies that impact the health of communities of color in Wisconsin, and supports the efforts of programs and organizations working to improve the health of communities of color, including those focused on the health of pregnant women, infants, and children.

Gov. Tony Evers has focused attention on improving maternal, infant, and child health and preventing infant mortality in Wisconsin with his “Healthy Babies, Healthy Women” initiative announced earlier this year, and his executive order on preventing child lead poisoning, which emphasized state agency coordination of lead poisoning prevention efforts.

Study: Madison’s low-income, minority students attend unsafe, failing schools

Madison, the fastest growing city in Wisconsin, has a lot going for it, but the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is failing its low-income and minority students, according to a new study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, “Two Madisons: The Education and Opportunity Gap in Wisconsin’s Fastest Growing City.”

WILL says the study reveals a bifurcated school district where predominantly white, wealthy families attend top schools while low-income and minority students attend unsafe, low-quality schools.

According to the study, Madison is representative of a particular progressive vision for education: one where the public schools are well-funded, the district is union-dominated, and there are few school choice options. 

WILL says Madison spends the most per student among large districts in Wisconsin ($15,241 on average), has a teachers union that resisted Act 10 for years, and has just two public charters and three private schools in the voucher program.

That vision for education is failing, WILL contends.

“The predominantly white, wealthy families of Madison attend some of the top schools in the state,” WILL states. “But the Madison public schools consistently fail their low-income and minority students when it comes to academic achievement, economic opportunity, and safety.”

According to original WILL research, African Americans and Hispanic students are more likely to attend unsafe Madison schools with higher numbers of 911 calls, while a nearly 50% gap divides whites and African Americans in reading and math proficiency — one of the largest racial achievement gaps in the state.

In addition, the study found, nearly one out of five African-American and Hispanic students in Madison do not earn a high school degree in five years. For white students in Madison, the number not earning a degree is one out of 12. Madison’s schools with more African-American and Hispanic students also have worse outcomes on average.

Finally, the research found that for Madison children in low-income families, the likelihood is high that they will remain stuck in the poverty cycle, while some Madison families with money have found the escape hatch. More than 4,000 students attend private schools without the assistance of a voucher. But for those without means, access is limited and options are few.

“Madison provides a glimpse of the unvarnished progressive vision for education,” WILL’s research director, Will Flanders, said. “The result is a public school district that fails low-income and minority students. Families cannot wait for MMSD to get its act together. They need quality options now.”

Study: The way schools identify gifted students is inequitable

Across Wisconsin — and the United States — students considered by schools to be gifted and talented are disproportionately white or Asian or come from upper-income families. It’s a demographic situation caused in part by the way schools identify gifted students, according to new research led by Scott Peters, a professor in the Department of Educational Foundations at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The most common way schools across the country identify high-performing students is to give them a test and compare their scores to a national norm, according to the research. For example, if a certain student scores in the top 5% of students nationwide in a given subject, they are labeled as gifted and provided with more rigorous academic challenges. 

Over the years, the study found, that process resulted in measurable disparities because some districts don’t have any students who score high enough to meet this arbitrary national standard. Those schools are often in poor neighborhoods and have majority-minority populations.

Peters said scholars have long suggested that using a local norm comparison instead of a national one would help increase diversity in gifted programs.

“No one had really empirically evaluated the effect of local norms before,” Peters said. “We wondered what would happen to the racial-ethnic picture of gifted programs if schools looked at the high performers in each individual school, as opposed to relying on a national threshold.”

Peters and his research colleagues looked at data from more than three million third-grade students who took the Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress test. The data focused on California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, South Carolina, Washington and Wisconsin because those states had the largest percentages of students taking the test.

“Then, we applied different, hypothetical criteria to identify gifted students,” he said. “We found that using the most local approach — identifying the highest performers in each building — gives you the most proportional racial/ethnic breakdown.”

Under the model to identify students for gifted programs using local norms, African American representation increased 300% in math and 238% in reading. 

While Peters’ research focused solely on race and ethnicity, he says this model would most certainly reveal and help address similar inequities among students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities and students who are still learning English.

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