Wisconsin School District Policy Responses to Demographic Changes

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Reviewed by Clare Fisher


Many school districts throughout the United States have made efforts to respond to demographic and cultural changes related to poverty, race, and immigration. Conservative and liberal areas alike have adapted curriculums, imposed professional development for staff, and introduced new programs in an attempt to demonstrate their commitment to immigrant students and students of color. However, despite the proliferation of new initiatives to meet these cultural changes, author Erica O. Turner’s analysis revealed that some district leaders have not entirely been successful in creating policies that recognize systemic inequalities in many students’ lives. 

“Racial meaning” and “meaning-making” refers to one’s belief systems and decision-making processes as they relate to race. Turner’s findings showed that political and organizational contexts shaped “racial meaning” for school district policy makers. These contexts included the parameters of state and local laws, as well as pressures from white middle class constituents. This sense of “meaning-making” for decision makers was central to the development of school districts’ education policy responses to changes in racial demographics. 

Erica O. Turner is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Informed by sociocultural and critical race theories, her research focuses on how racism and inequity affects educational policymaking. Turner also examines how these school policies shape and influence  students, families, communities, schools, and policymakers.

Methods and Findings

This study was a comparative analysis of two school districts located in Wisconsin. Both were medium-sized, urban districts that experienced notable increases in non-white, low-income student enrollment – but the two districts had contrasting community attitudes. One district had a “struggling economy and a generally unaccepting attitude towards immigrants and people of color,” while the other district had a “stronger economy and a more inclusive attitude towards immigrants and people of color.” 

From 2009 to 2010, Turner interviewed 37 school policymakers across the two districts about their policy responses to demographic change. Turner identified several categories of policy responses embraced by both districts: 

  • English Language Programs: District policymakers were primarily concerned with immigrant student’s English language acquisition needs and often hired bilingual staff to teach students to speak and understand English. School districts were also interested in implementing two-way immersion programs, which would place native English speakers with immigrant students in the same classroom so they can learn both languages (usually English and Spanish) from one another.
  • Professional Development: Trainings for school staff focused on racial and ethnic diversity; school leadership often cited professional development tools focused on ethnicity as a proxy for race and poverty—rather than addressing each topic individually.
  • Strategic Planning: District leaders pursued strategic planning efforts that addressed gaps in educational achievement between different demographic groups. 
  • Marketing: Both schools developed marketing plans to tout the increase in demographic diversity as a means to help prepare white students for their future by exposing them to students with global languages and cultures. 
  • Behavior and Discipline Policy: Leaders in both school districts adopted new behavior and discipline strategies, but each district had different perceptions and perspectives regarding  race that shaped their decision making. Policy makers in the more conservative district focused on shifting the attitudes of school staff and community members regarding the increase in students of color. Policy makers in the more liberal district prioritized strategic planning as a means to reduce the achievement gap.

Interestingly, Turner’s findings detail even more similarities between the liberal and conservative school districts. Both districts identified the same two challenges as most salient when discussing the “problem” of demographic change. (1) Leaders were concerned about the educational outcomes of immigrant students and students of color. (2) Leaders were concerned about the mostly white, middle-class families that were leaving the district or threatening to leave. 

Neither district raised significant concerns about problems associated with immigrant students or English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Most concerns centered around race and class inequality, like those described above. 

Turner identified the following factors as influential in shaping education policy in these Wisconsin school districts:

  • Community Leaders of Color: Black and Latinx community leaders pressured schools to be more responsive to students of color in their curriculum. 
  • White and Middle Class or Affluent Parents: School leaders leveraged marketing strategies to promote diversity and influence white families to stay in their districts.
  • Federal and State Laws: Several policies and regulations related to race and language set requirements that the districts had to follow, including the creation of bilingual education programs.
  • Organizational Affiliations and Professional Roles: Staff at various levels of school district leadership had different interpretations of the implications of demographic changes. For example, district administrators focused on the importance of professional development for staff whereas school board members were most concerned with family exits from the district. 


Turner’s key takeaway was: “discourses of cultural deficits and prejudice on the one hand and diversity and language on the other hand are ultimately limited in their ability to make schools designed to serve white, middle-class, non-immigrant children into schools that are high quality and socially just for all students and suggest an alternative framing and policies.” It is essential that advocates for immigrant students and students of color understand the realities of “racial meaning” in their local policy making to collaborate successfully on effective educational policies. Advocates must be aware of and interrogate both the political context of the district and the potential perspectives of local district educational policy makers to ensure the needs of immigrant students and students of color are elevated and addressed. 


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