'Here & Now' Highlights: Rich Halverson, Jamie Delikowski

Here's what guests on the June 2, 2023 episode said about state bills that would have Wisconsin teachers use phonics curriculum to teach reading and prohibit districts from taking certain school funding referendums to voters.

By Frederica Freyberg | Here & Now

June 5, 2023

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Rich Halverson and Frederica Freyberg sit facing each other on the Here & Now set.

Rich Halverson and Frederica Freyberg (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

As legislative budget writers work to detail state agency funding for the 2023-25 biennium, bills proposing policy shifts are also circulating. One bipartisan bill would require the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to teach children to read using phonics, whereby students learn to sound words out by blending letters. UW-Madison School of Education professor Rich Halverson described how reading is taught to young learners. Another bill would prohibit a school board from going to referendum for borrowing other than for maintenance expenses if district test scores are too low — Tri-County Schools District Administrator Jaimie Delikowski questioned limiting districts if voters could approve.

Rich Halverson
Professor, UW-Madison School of Education

  • Components of a forthcoming bipartisan bill to teach phonics in Wisconsin schools would screen for reading skills starting in kindergarten, add and train teachers on new phonics-based curriculum, and deploy reading coaches. Statewide test scores for third through eighth grades in 2022 showed between 34-42% of students scored as proficient or advanced in reading, depending upon their grade. The bill’s language will call for state funding of the curriculum and training, according to state Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, an author of the proposal. Halverson said students who learn to read using technical skills like sounding out and blending letters perform better on standardized tests.
  • Halverson: “The tests that we have that we hold as important – our third grade reading tests – that really focus on the kinds of skills that phonics teaches. … There’s a transition that happens in literacy from learning to read to reading to learn. And that happens around the fourth or fifth grade where you then take your technical skills and you use them to explore other domains. What we really need is young people who can master those technical skills, so they could go on to apply their reading skills to become more literate folks.”


Jamie Delikowski
District Administrator, Tri-County Area School District

  • Districts across Wisconsin are increasingly relying on voters to approve additional funding for their schools because of strict revenue limits and stagnant state funding. Over the last three elections, there were 249 referenda on local ballots seeking tens of millions of dollars, of which179 passed. A bill would prohibit a school board from going to referendum for borrowing other than for maintenance expenses if the district has low reading and math test scores. For larger districts, the scores could be no lower than 60 out of 100, and for smaller districts, no lower than 50 on a new state evaluation scale. The small district of Tri-County, based in the Waushara County village of Plainfield and has fewer than 600 students, went to referendum in April 2023 with a $1.45 million request. It passed. Delikowski said the money will go toward needs like a new boiler and roof as well as more modern curriculum to boost Tri-County’s test scores. In 2022, the district’s score came in at 50.3 out of 100 – that figure would put Tri-County very close to the cut-off for ability to go to referendum under the bill.
  • Delikowski: “My heating system is nearly 70 years old. Our roof that is supposed to last 10 to 15 years is in its 32nd year. We haven’t been frivolous with our taxpayer dollars. We’ve been extremely cognizant of being careful with our community funds. But we’ve also had to say, ‘Let’s wait on that latest and greatest math curriculum for our elementary school. Let’s hold off on the newest reading curriculum because we didn’t have the funds to do it.’ The state set up a system in the early ’90s in which they said school boards can no longer simply raise the revenue limit per student. … You can do that, but you need to go to every taxpayer — that’s called the referendum. This district didn’t do that for 30 some years. But when we did, we said we want that for our students and we understand our taxes are going to go up for it. … But we needed this money. We had a $950,000 deficit on a $10 million budget this year that we cut down by increasing class sizes, by not replacing retiring staff. If we had not passed this referendum, this community school district of generations would not be able to survive for more than probably about a year to two years.”


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