Tim Cullen wins national award for increasing teacher diversity

Former lawmaker writing book on Janesville and GM
Tim Cullen wins national award for increasing teacher diversity
Photo courtesy of Tim Cullen
Photo of Tim Cullen with his NEA President's Award in Houston on July 3.

He’s best known in Wisconsin for a political career that included time as a powerful Democratic state senator in the early 1980s and for shocking Capitol observers when in 1987 he crossed the aisle to become Tommy Thompson’s first secretary of Health and Family Services.

Janesville native Tim Cullen also spent time as an executive with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin. He returned to the state senate for one last term in 2011, and seriously considered — before rejecting — a run for governor in 2018.

There is a lot to know about Tim Cullen. I count myself lucky to know him as an amiable lunch companion at the Laurel Tavern on Monroe Street. That’s where we started meeting when I was helping Tim edit and organize his first book, 2015’s “Ringside Seat,” an insider’s look at the past four decades of Wisconsin politics that is unflinching in its criticism of the Scott Walker administration.

The Laurel is where we met again when I assisted Tim with his second book, yet-to-be published and tentatively titled “Disassembled,” about the complex history of General Motors in Janesville.

It was months ago at one of those Laurel lunches when Tim mentioned in passing that he’d be going to Texas in July to receive an award. He didn’t talk about it as a big deal, because that is not Tim’s way. But his trip to Houston last week was a big deal, in that it brought national recognition to an extraordinary program Cullen started in Janesville in 2008.

A year earlier, Cullen, in his capacity as a new member of the Janesville School Board, asked a question of Superintendent Tom Evert. The board had recently learned that students of color now made up 17 percent of Janesville’s student population, yet the number of teachers of color in the district was miniscule — somewhere around 1%.

The district had been trying — through job fairs and billboards in Rockford — to increase the number of minority teachers, without success.

Cullen’s question: How many students of color would be graduating from Janesville high schools in the spring? The answer: 93.

As Tim told me last week, before leaving for Houston, “I figured some of them must want to be teachers. That was the birth of the idea.”

The idea, officially launched in 2008, became the Janesville Multicultural Teacher Scholarship Program. Cullen established a foundation and made a significant financial contribution, something he has continued to do. The funding is all private.

The scholarship includes $5,000 a year for up to five years for graduating Janesville High School seniors of color who agree to enroll in a school of education and then apply for a teaching position in Janesville upon graduating. The first scholarship recipient began teaching in Janesville in 2013.

“Today we have eight teachers teaching,” Cullen said, “and nine more in the pipeline.”

The number of students of color in Janesville is now approaching 30 percent.

Cullen learned last fall from former Janesville teacher Stephanie Rapach — now teaching in Beloit — that he’d been nominated for a National Education Association (NEA) Human and Civil Rights Award.

Then early this year, at home on a Friday night, he got a call from the NEA. His work with the scholarship program had earned Cullen the 2019 President’s Award, NEA’s highest honor. A letter that followed read in part, “Because of your exemplary accomplishments, unwavering advocacy for public education, promotion of social justice, recruitment and retention efforts for educators of color and advocacy for students of color, you have been selected to receive the NEA President’s Award.”

A crew came from NEA and produced a video about the scholarship program that can be seen on YouTube.

The awards ceremony was July 3 at the convention center in Houston. Some 2,000 educators from around the country were in attendance.

Cullen hopes receiving the award on a large stage will encourage other localities to consider a similar scholarship program. There is precedent. Beloit now has a program, called the Grow Your Own Multicultural Scholarship Program.

Stephanie Rapach, one of those who nominated Cullen for the award, was in Houston last week with a group from Wisconsin. The day after the ceremony she noted how those assembled reacted to Cullen’s award.

“People told me they thought Tim got the loudest applause became they loved the idea of the scholarship he started.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.