Last week in the Wisconsin assembly, a bill was unveiled to create the nation’s first Education Savings Account program dedicated to the unique needs of gifted children. At first blush, some might wonder at the need for supplemental support for these students: aren’t they already doing well? 

In our new policy brief, we make the case that, while these students are doing well, they are perhaps not doing as well as they could. Moreover, some truly gifted students may not be getting into gifted programs at all.

Mass education presents a difficult balance for teachers in that students of varying ability levels are in a single classroom.  Teachers must slow the pace for the slower learning students in the class, while gifted students may be ready to proceed. National education programs like No Child Left Behind have exacerbated this disparity, as schools have been incentivized to increase the performance of the lowest performers while receiving few benefits for improving the outcomes of high achievers. 

Gifted education programs are designed to reduce this problem, but there are questions about how well such programs are implemented in Wisconsin. Currently, there is no dedicated funding for gifted education in the state. Moreover, more than 60 percent of the school districts in the state have no staff person dedicated to gifted education. 

That high achievers are not being prepared to excel is evidenced by the paltry number of AP Exams taken in many Wisconsin school districts. In the majority of the state’s school districts, no student takes an AP Exam at all. The disparity in AP Exam participation is high between urban and rural districts. In urban districts, AP Exams are taken in an average of 19 subjects. In rural districts, however, exams are only taken in an average of four subjects.

An additional problem occurs with access to gifted education programs. Currently in the state, students are classified as ‘gifted’ purely at the discretion of school teachers and administrators. Such a system may lend itself to truly gifted students not being identified as such if they don’t fit traditional conceptions of what a ‘smart’ kid looks like or behaves. This is not to say that teachers are being intentionally discriminatory, but rather a recognition of the fact that human nature is governed by implicit biases. Whatever the cause, there is evidence that African American students are less likely to be assigned to gifted services even if they achieve the same test scores as a non-minority student.

The Gifted and Talented ESA presents a solution to both of these concerns. Under the legislation, 2,000 families with students identified as gifted would have access to a $1,000 stipend to purchase supplemental services for their child. This money could be used for a number of approved services, including tuition, payment to a tutor, or to pay the cost of an AP Exam. This program would be open to students in public, choice, and charter schools and has no impact on the funding for those schools.

As an attempt to overcome the potential under-identification problem noted earlier, the program would automatically identify students who score in the top five percent of their grade level on the Forward Exam as ‘gifted.’ While maintaining identification through traditional means, this provision may give students from some traditionally under-represented groups the opportunity to supplement their education.

The legislation is not perfect. By limiting the ability to receive the ESA to students with family incomes within 185 percent of the federal poverty line, for example, many struggling lower middle class families will be shut out from access. That said, the future of Wisconsin—and the nation—may depend on helping high achieving students reach their full potential. This ESA program represents an important step in insuring that can happen, and is hopefully merely the starting point for broader reform to our traditional education system in this state.

Dr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
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