Unpacking Wisconsin's "Accountability" Bill: The Senate Version (SB1)

Dear friends of Wisconsin public schools, 
A couple of weeks ago we warned you about AB1 - the very first bill of the 2015 legislative session, which called for a 13-member board of political appointees that would set and enforce standards of 'accountability' (including punishments for "failing" schools and rewards for "successful" ones), and included a state mandate to convert "chronically failing" public schools to charter schools that would not be subject to local control.  Public school advocates all over the state put out the word, and it worked: the hearing room was packed, legislators were flooded with letters of concern, and before the hearing even began, it was announced that the original bill was being scrapped and major revisions would be written (though we're still waiting on the amended bill).

At the standing-room-only hearing, an overflow room was set up to make room for all who came to testify against the bill, and the only person in Wisconsin to officially speak in favor of the bill was its author, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt.  Testimony went on for 11.5 hours, and Rebecca Kemble at The Progressive Magazine has done an excellent job of pulling out some of the highlights after the delayed release of the footage due to technical difficulties at Wisconsin Eye.

SB1 text (the Senate version of AB1 - the Public School Takeover Bill which is being promoted as a "school accountability" bill) is now online, and a public hearing for the bill is slated for Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015 in room 411 South of the Capitol. 

The Senate version of the bill is half as long and twice as sneaky as the Assembly bill, but  equally reprehensible in failing to create any legitimate accountability for the private schools currently receiving tax dollars to exploit the system and capitalize on our children, while penalizing the public schools that serve some of our most vulnerable student populations and have the highest percentages of low-income students.  The bill is a very thinly veiled attempt to both limit accountability for private schools and open the doors to more privatization AND further burden public schools with top-down mandates that revoke local control.

Here are the major features of the bill that are cause for concern if you support excellent public schools that provide equal opportunity for success for all students:

  1. The Senate bill (SB1) differs from the Assembly version (AB1) in that it calls for establishing and giving unprecedented authority to two separate "accountability boards"  for schools receiving tax dollars (one for public & charter schools - the PACB, one for voucher schools - the CAB or "choice accountability board"). These boards would have authority to review annual accountability reports and identify "failing" schools, then review and approve "improvement plans" (for public schools only) [see below for what happens when schools don't improve]. The ARB for public schools would be appointed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the ARB for the private schools would be political appointees (appointed by the Governor). The Constitutionality of this attempt to legislate two separate, unequal school systems in Wisconsin is seriously in question, and this feature of the bill is not likely to stand a court challenge since Article X, Section 3 of the Wisconsin Constitution explicitly calls for "the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge for tuition to all children between the ages of 4 and 20 years; and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein."  Further, and equally problematic, the establishment of Academic Review Boards violates current law by usurping the authority of the Department of Public Instruction (under the leadership of a democratically elected Superintendent) and local control of local schools by local, democratically elected school boards.
  2. The bill gives full discretion to the Public and Charter Board to "Implement or modify ANY requirements required to be in a school district improvement plan." This is basically a carte blanche to the board to usurp local authority and take control of district-level decision-making.  It could mean anything, and that's the intention.There are 5 provisions under this section of the bill, all are penal and open-ended enough to allow the PACB to supercede local authority and autonomy and do anything from fire staff to shut down schools:
  3.  SB1 includes a mandate to defund public school districts that have one or more "chronically failing" schools, with much harsher provisions for traditional public schools than independent charters:
    "The bill authorizes DPI to withhold state aid from a school district that fails to comply with an improvement plan for a chronically failing school or school district or with a directive made by the PCAB to the school board of a chronically failing school or school district. Additionally, the contract for an independent charter school that is identified as a chronically failing school in the penultimate year of a contract term, may not be renewed."
    This means the districts already struggling most, post Act-10 and the draconian budget cuts of the past two biennial budgets, are likely to be hit hardest and most directly by this bill and find the least support for "improving" struggling schools. Let's be clear on what this really means:  It means this bill intentionally targets Milwaukee Public Schools and other districts with high percentages of both low-income students and students of color, districts where the privatization interests have long been circling in their attempts to cash in on opportunities to "save" struggling schools...without providing the results (or the accountability!) to back up their claims.

    In despicable contrast:  The penalty for "chronically failing" private voucher schools?  They can't accept new voucher students for three years.  Students already enrolled can stay (!) and the school will continue to receive tax dollars in the form of vouchers as long as those students wish to be enrolled.

    Let that sink in: Voucher schools that are "failing" would not be allow to accept new voucher students (current students could stay).   In other words: there's no "sanction" here at all for private schools that fail our kids.  They can continue to collect tax dollars and retain current voucher students.  They can continue to "counsel out" struggling students (sending them back to public schools, but keeping the voucher money). There's no provision or penalty for failing to meet standards, for failing to demonstrate achievement, for shutting down in the middle of a school year and leaving the state.  In short: they remain entirely unaccountable to the public.

    Oh, and both private and public schools could "appeal" if they didn't like being labeled "chronically failing schools", and the board could decided whether or not "
    exceptional circumstances justify [the schools'] performance on the annual accountability reports."  In the absence of uniformity of standards of accountability, it does not take great leaps of the imagination to see where this loophole would lead:  the entire system sets up public schools to fail while giving voucher schools an easy out of accountability - and an easy "in" to collecting more public dollars.
  4. "Accountability" means that we are under an obligation to ensure an equal opportunity for successful learning for every child attending public school in this state. Establishing penalties and punishments based on standardized test scores and inequitable measures of "success" or "failure" is a misguided, ineffective and politically-motivated approach to improving struggling schools.  We already have a nationally applauded system of accountability for our public schools, and we already know how to improve the schools that most need help: fund them at levels adequate to ensure we can meet the needs of all learners, and adopt community schools models to meet the needs of all students.  What's lacking (and is entirely absent from this bill) is real accountability for private voucher schools and independent charters. This was perhaps the most common thread of testimony at the AB1 hearing, as Rebecca Kemble summarized:
    A broad range of people from all over the state and across the political spectrum spoke in opposition to the measure. Superintendents from the school districts of Milwaukee, Green Bay, Pewaukee and Appleton all had similar messages: For meaningful improvements in so-called failing schools to occur, educators need to be supported with adequate resources to implement proven, evidence-based strategies, the most simplest of all being small class sizes staffed with well-trained, well-compensated and motivated teachers.
    They also pointed out that housing, income and nutritional stability in the families of school kids have more of an impact on their academic achievement than any other kind of in-school interventions.
    In the wake of the recent $1.6 billion cut to Wisconsin’s public schools, as well as cuts to public health care and food share programs, those simple yet effective solutions seem to be out of reach.
  5.  Fiscal impacts.  What this bill pointedly does NOT mention (and what is yet to be established by the LRB or DPI), is the high cost of all of this on the taxpayers of this state, and the fact that we simply cannot afford two separate systems of education in Wisconsin, and local communities cannot afford the economic fall-out of labeling local schools as "failures" when we should be investing in their success.  While legislators imply that there's no real "cost" to establishing these boards, it was crystal clear to all those who testified against the Assembly version of the bill, is that this restructuring will have an immediate and negative impact on ALL public schools in Wisconsin, and particularly the rural schools which may not be "failing" by the "standards" of the current accountability system, but will most certainly be en route to doing so when their meager funds are spread even thinner as more and more money is siphoned into voucher schools and independent charter schools.  Whatever "requirements" are mandated by the PACB will be paid for by the taxpayers - and if one of those mandates is to convert a public school to an independent charter, then that money will be sucked out of the general public school fund and every district in the state will pay the price.
  6.  Bias and politics.  Perhaps most frustrating of all is the way this bill (and the ones we know are yet to come in this legislative session) play politics at the expense of our kids and their future, and the health of our local communities. 

    The doubl
    e-standards and assumptions of this bill, and its mandate that districts provide free advertising to private schools for all residents, make clear that this bill has been directly influenced, if not crafted by, the privatization lobbyists who remain the only "interest" in support of these bills.  The fact that the bill does not provide ANY clear measures of accountability for private schools, but provides strict sanctions and penalties for public schools, makes it extremely difficult to see the bill as anything less than the public school takeover bill that it is. 

    This is not a game, and we are not so foolish as to be tricked into believing that this bill is about "accountability" at all.  It's not: it's about taking control of public schools so that they can fulfill the long-stated goal of the conservative "reform" movement:  "Public Schools: Make them Private."

    Many Republican legislators in Wisconsin do not, in fact, share this goal.  They recognize the value and necessity of investment in our beloved community schools and they oppose efforts to undermine local control.  But they have been manipulated by the rhetoric of "reform" by many of their sponsors, and they need to hear from YOU to be reminded that we ALL want to invest in strategies and policies that ensure the success of all students, in the public schools that are the hearts of our communities. 
Like the Assembly version of the bill, SB1 ignores the rigorous system of accountability already in place for public schools and fails to make similar demands of accountability for voucher and independent charter schools. 

For public schools, this bill is all-stick, no-carrot.  For private voucher schools, it's all carrot, no stick.  The privatization lobbyists who paid so richly to elect Wisconsin Republicans are finally seeing the end results of their payback, led in large part by the American Federation for Children, whose leader, billionaire Betsy DeVos, so famously once said she always expects a "return" on her philanthropic "investments".

The language used in this bill is much more subtle and sneaky than the incendiary language of AB1, but the message is the same: a board of appointees would have the power and authority to control local schools and a big-government mandate to penalize struggling schools while rewarding those that are already doing well.  This bill both exploits and ensures existing gaps between the have and have-not districts in Wisconsin, and paves a road of gold for the privateers to swoop in an capitalize on our children by setting up more for-profit education "ventures" (independent charter schools and voucher schools) that have consistently proven less successful than traditional public schools and are NOT held accountable to taxpayers. 

While public schools are required by law to serve all students and meet federal requirements for equitable resources and treatment for all, charter and voucher schools can "counsel out" kids who do not score well, suspend and discipline students as they wish, and have very lax, often illegal, provisions for services for special needs students.  These shortcomings are well-documented.    

What we need in Wisconsin is state-level investment and support of local control of local schools so that we can ensure that every child in the state has an equal opportunity to an excellent education.  Public schools are the heart of our communities, and the heart of the social contract of any democracy.  Show legislators you support public schools by taking a strong stand against this dangerous bill.
  • The public hearing on SB1 will be Tuesday, Jan. 27 at 9am. Mark your calendars and plan to attend.  The hearing notice has recently been updated to include this line: "At the discretion of the Chair, time limits may be placed on testimony. Written testimony will be accepted and distributed to members of the Committee."  This means they know we're coming and want to limit our time to speak.  Those planning to testify in person should be prepared to limit their remarks to as little as 3 minutes, and would be wise to bring written copies of the "long version" of your testimony to submit to the committee after speaking (or email that testimony in advance).
  • Written testimony may be submitted to the chair of the Committee on Education Reform and Government Operations, Sen. Paul Farrow at: Sen.Farrow@legis.wisconsin.gov
  • If you send written testimony, be sure to: 
    • Include a statement that you wish your concerns to be submitted to the record as written testimony and distributed to the entire committee. 
    • Include your full name, address, and phone number. 
    • CC Gov. Walker (govgeneral@wisconsin.gov) and your own representatives, as well as Senate & Assembly leaders Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and Rep. Robin Vos
  • For your copy/past convenience, here are the key email addresses of the legislators you should contact (first five names are the Education Reform & Government Operations committee members):
    Sen. Harsdorf@legis.wisconsin.gov



    + your own legislators

  • SPREAD THE WORD. After you've prepared your testimony (either to submit in person at the hearing or in writing ahead of time), FORWARD your testimony to you friends, neighbors and others who care about protecting public schools and local control in Wisconsin. Share your testimony on social media and invite others to do the same.  You can also paste your testimony in the comments to this post, or email me and I'll put them online.
We CAN stop this bill, but only if we speak up and speak out, and make sure that we do our part to make sure that the average Wisconsin citizen knows what's really at stake in these bills.  Republican legislators are not being honest about what these bills mean to our schools, and the negative impacts of this legislation cannot be overstated.  Our public schools - the hearts of our communities - are at stake here, and we need to send the message loud and clear: OUR KIDS ARE NOT FOR SALE.

Why MLK Day Matters: A Question of Character

Those who've known me longest might remember that the only time I ever really "got in trouble" in high school was when I faced detention for having skipped school to attend a Martin Luther King Day march downtown Grand Rapids, after having asked permission to attend and been denied  (a detention, incidentally, which my friend and I managed to convert into community service by asking if we could "do our time" at a local soup kitchen instead of by sitting in an empty room after school).

This was a pivotal and founding moment of resistance for me, and had the bonus of drawing attention to the fact that our school didn't sufficiently acknowledge the impacts of Dr. King and the need to position his work in the present, not just the past. This was the late 80s, when the international pressure was finally starting to reveal cracks in US support for Apartheid South Africa, and this was a moment of awakening for me, as I began to realize that the institutional hypocrisy that my friends and I had long observed wasn't just a matter of "bias" or "prejudice:"  it was a matter of power.   And a matter of character.

As an idealistic and budding young activist without the vocabulary to fully express or understand it yet, this incident really opened my eyes to the limits of my "activism" within the narrow parameters of my privilege.  And I knew then as much as I know now that I would never be able to live with myself if I didn't live my life toward change.  This moment pushed me hard down a path I'd already started following, and moved me to read wider, dream bigger, and fight harder for what was right.     Next to Frantz Fanon, no one has influenced the way I think about our obligation to work for change more than Dr. King, and no American holds a higher place in my esteem.

Those who know me more recently know that the life I live today is lived largely and very consciously in pursuit of both social justice and the fulfillment of a dream that is yet to be fulfilled: that ALL will be judged "by the content of their character" and not the color of their skin.  All too often we over-simplify this serious charge.  Dr. King wasn't jsut saying "Don't be racist."  He was saying: Character is what really matters. And not just the character of others, but the character of ourselves.  This is the moral imperative: to define ourselves by doing what is right. This is the fundamental charge of Dr. King, and the fundamental charge of every major religion for that matter.  And if character is what really matters, then what option do we have but to do whatever we can live our lives to the greatest benefit of others? 

So MLK Day is my favorite holiday of the year for many, many reasons, but mostly these: (1) because it's a day in which we celebrate the legacy of a man whose radical morality made him an enemy of the state and the voice of a nation deeply in need of justice and (2) because I can't help but think of today as the anniversary of my own political awakening, and it's a reminder of the need to push on, stand strong, and continue to fight for what is right.

And what's right today is the same thing that was right in Dr. King's time: justice.

The fight for social justice today remains largely a fight against poverty.  The fight for equity and equality remains a fight against policies and practices that keep our schools segregated, our poorest kids at the bottom, and those who work the hardest and longest and struggle the most at the very bottom of the economic food chain.

Dr. King died fighting poverty, which he recognized as ground-zero of the civil rights struggle.  He died fighting for the radical belief that not only do we have the means and the moral imperative to eradicate poverty, but we have the moral imperative to ensure that every worker earns a living wage.  This is what building character, building citizenship, means to me.  It means we work together to do what's right. No matter what.

This is why our fight is a fight for public schools, why we fight to ensure that EVERY school is excellent instead of investing in a system where some schools are set up to fail while others profit off the "failures" of students already facing enough obstacles to their success.  This is why our fight is a fight against disparate and disproportionate treatment of minorities and low-income citizens by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. This is why our fight is a fight against unjust laws and policies that exploit workers, trample workers' rights, and reward businesses that underpay, outsource, and profit on the misfortune of the ever-growing underclass of low-wage workers.  So as we honor Dr. King's legacy today, let's not water-down this message, and let's not allow anyone to co-opt the power of this truth under an umbrella of "tolerance" or a feel-good appeal to "racial harmony."  Let's remember that to stand with Dr. King is to take a stand, strongly, against poverty and against a system that ensures and guarantees the oppression of others by privileging those who already benefit from so many privileges:

 "The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty."

- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

That is the charge.  We know we have the resources and the wealth needed to abolish poverty.  The question is how will we?  When will we? And will we have the courage to do so? 

I'll close a reminder that "the time is always right to do what's right,"  and my favorite quote from Dr. King: 

"Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?

But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

 -   Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis preserve their neutrality."

Why The School Takeover Bill is Wrong for Wisconsin: Recap of the AB1 Hearing

For nearly 12 hours on Wed. Jan 14, 2015, I watched as the Assembly Education Committee hearing on AB-1, the Public School Takeover Bill, went from standing room only to empty.  During this time, many remarkable things happened.  Here's the shortest version I could distill of that harrowing timeline:
  • Around 9am, it was announced before the hearing even began that the provision of AB1 to establish a 13-member Academic Review Board would be dropped, and that a revised bill was in the works.  Neither a revised bill nor proposed amendments were available for public view or consideration.  It was announced that the revised bill would be produced by Friday, Jan. 16, and that there would be no additional public hearing on the revised bill (Click HERE to sign the petition calling for additional hearings).
  • By 10am (official start time of the hearing), the hearing room was packed to the gills with experts and citizens from all over the state who came to testify in opposition to AB1.  These people were now uncertain what they were testifying against, as the "new" bill has not yet been written.
  • Committee chair and the bill's only named author, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, testified in favor of the bill for the first two hours of the hearing.  HE WAS THE **ONLY** PERSON IN WISCONSIN TO OFFICIALLY TESTIFY IN FAVOR OF THE BILL.  During his testimony, he refused to name the additional authors of the bill, admitted that the bill would open the doors to privatizing public schools, and suggested that the Academic Review Board which was the cornerstone of the 29-page bill was a publicity stunt.  He further promised that Common Core State Standards, which were not covered by the  original bill, would be "a big part" of the revised bill (which he said would not receive a public hearing).  Before his testimony even ended, many who'd been first in line to speak were forced to leave because of other obligations. 
  • Around noon, public testimony began. Jeff Pertl of Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) was the first to speak.  He gave a compelling and excellent case for the disastrous implications of the bill. Then he was subjected to interrogation by the committee which revealed in short order the contempt of Assembly Republicans for public schools and the expertise of education professionals.
  • For the next 10 hours, citizen after citizen took the microphone and voiced fact-based, meticulously argued reasons why this ill-founded "accountability" scheme was an attempt to hijack public schools in Wisconsin without even attempting to establish accountability where it's needed most (ie for the private schools and independent charters receiving taxpayer funds without being held accountable to the public).  I watched with profound disappointment as so many people I knew had to leave, one by one, before they had the chance to speak - including Tim Slekar, Dean of the Edgewood College School of Education (who shared his thoughts on the hearing & testimony here), and many representatives of my own school district (educators, a principal, a school board member) - none of whom got to speak.
  • Groups representing students and schools were given priority placement on the agenda, and pretty much every education advocacy group in the state had sent a representative to speak out against this bill. (Click here for the excellent testimony from John Forester of the Wisconsin School Administrators' Alliance). Their collective testimony was devastating, and many common threads pointed toward:
    • the bill's unconscionable and illegal seizure of control from DPI and local, democratically-elected school boards
    • the inherent flaw in the bill's premise: the unfounded assumption that charter schools are a "magic bullet" to fix "failing" schools
    • the inequity and unconstitutionality of creating "two systems" and "two standards" of accountability for Wisconsin schools
    • the problematic nature of using multiple measures (so-called "value-added" assessments and multiple standardized tests) to rank and assess schools
    • the many follies of the A-F grading system and its potential impact on tax revenues and local economies
    • the fiscal impacts of the bill, all negative, especially for rural schools
    • the disproportionate negative impact of the bill on public schools, which serve 875,000 Wisconsin students
    • the lack of accountability for voucher schools and independent charters in the bill
    • the fact that the State of Wisconsin ALREADY HAS a rigorous accountability system in place for public schools
  • IN CONTRAST: While media reports tend to give "equal time" to the bill's "support," it should be emphasized as much as possible that the ONLY people to speak in favor of the bill were paid privatization lobbyists Scott Jensen (R, American Federation for Children) and Jim Bender (R, School Choice Wisconsin).  As Rebecca Kemble points out,
    "Only the bill's named author, Jeremy Thiesfeldt, testified in favor. Scott Jensen and Jim Bender spoke "for information purposes only" since neither they nor their organizations are legally registered lobbyists in the State of Wisconsin. Otherwise, it was an amazingly broad range of people from all over the state and all over the political spectrum who soundly rejected this not-ready-for-prime-time bill." 
    During their testimony, Jensen said he was "thrilled" with both the bill and the "collaboration" with Thiesfeldt in its crafting. [NOTE: Thiesfeldt claims to also have "consulted" with a school district administrator on the bill, but this is a highly dubious claim, and to record no education professionals had a hand in its drafting].
  •  A full seven hours into the testimony, and long after many present had to leave to meet other obligations, we heard from the first educator of the day, and the final hours of the testimony proved the most poignant as educators and citizens (conservatives and progressives alike) finally had opportunity to speak.
  • The hearing was adjourned just shy of the 12-hour mark, and now we wait anxiously for the revised version of the bill, which Thiesfeldt says he hopes will be passed next week, and the Senate version of the bill, which is tentatively slated for a public hearing on Jan. 27 (MARK YOUR CALENDARS AND PLAN TO ATTEND!)
"I am a parent and I don’t have a choice. My son has multiple disabilities,
and the school choice program isn’t required by law to take him.

My name is Peg Randall Gardner and I am here to register my dissent
to this bill and the negative effects it will have on children like mine.
This is my son Nikolai. He wanted to come and testify for himself,
but the eleven hours I’ve been sitting here would have done him in.
So I’ll just put his picture here. I wanted you to see his picture
because this bill is about more than numbers, test scores, data and the
arbitrary grades that determine if schools and school districts pass or fail.
It’s about people, real people, like Nikolai.
These policies are not just theories for him; they’re his life."
- Public school parent Peg Randall Gardner
Read the rest of her powerful testimony here: http://bit.ly/1DLEvII
Photo and caption: Joe Brusky,  MTEA
I'm terrified about what the "revised" bill will look like, and of the fact that that bill is likely to never see a public hearing. Hopefully the sham hearing we witnessed on Wednesday will rally an even larger turnout in opposition to the upcoming legislation promised to be even more regressive.  Stay tuned for details on that.

As one of the people who testified and sat through nearly the entire day's proceedings, as expert after expert after expert testified to the horrors of the impacts of this bill on both public schools and the public trust, I can say that the two stand-out pieces of testimony came from retired Wisconsin educator Sheila Plotkin and current MPS teacher Amy Mizialko.  The testimony from our friends at Stop Special Needs Vouchers was also excellent.

If you do nothing else to inform yourself, take the time to listen to what they had to say (transcript of testimony follows clips - thanks to Rebecca Kemble for the video).  And prepare to take action.  The future of our schools depends on it: 


In my own testimony, I called on legislators to take seriously the considerations and concerns and expertise of all those who testified, and to let OUR voices ring louder than the paid lobbyists who would very likely be at their doors, if not their desks, as the bill is revised.  Rep. Kitchens called us "cynical" but I pointed out that our cynicism is firmly rooted in the 29-pages of the original bill.  And I'll add here that the real cynicism lies in the ultimate failure of this bill to make good on the promise of public education through an unwarranted distrust in public schools and educators.  It's a betrayal of the common good, and a cynical attempt to undermine the foundation of our communities: our beloved public schools.

We knew this fight was going to get ugly.  But what would really be cynical would be to say there's nothing we can do about it.

Republicans have the majority and they've made their anti-education agenda clear. 

We know who's paying for it, and we know who will pay the price.

But they need to know this:  we're not giving up our schools without a fight. 

Yesterday should've been the 86th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and I'll leave you with the reminder that guides my every action:  "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

This matters.  And silence is consent.

Get ready to join this fight, Wisconsin. 


Transcript of the testimony of Sheila Plotkin (with many thanks for permission to post it here:

Article X SECTION 3 of the WI Constitution says: “The legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge for tuition to all children
between the ages of 4 and 20 years; and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein.”  That’s education for all.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) issued a report on American education, posted by Americans for Prosperity. “The one-size-fits-all education system has not worked. States should… pass choice legislation like charter school bills and voucher systems ….”  That’s education by exclusion.  And, it’s most definitely partisan. It’s a different view of civic responsibility.

Rep. Thiesfeldt introduced AB1. He is a member of Americans for Prosperity, even using that sneering phrase “one size fits all” on his own website.  He’s a religious school teacher, and received $1800 in campaign contributions from private and religious schools.  Those who share his views have spent more than $30 million in the past decade to promote the privatization of education.

I retired from the Milwaukee Public Schools Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program after 28 years. From the inside, I saw daunting challenges overwhelm shrinking resources. I hold you accountable for that.  I am a passionate advocate of public education. It is not one-size-fits-all. It is open to all. “All” are the children that Amy spoke so movingly about, they are the “input” that Scott Jensen dismissed so contemptuously. They are children, not input. 
Last night, Gov. Walker said he trusts parents to choose their children’s schools. We’ve heard a lot about that today. Nearly all parents (96%) choose their public schools. You have already slashed their funding. Those chosen schools are dying by slow strangulation. You’ll now label them as failures. You’ll use the failures you engineered to justify an education-by-exclusion system at taxpayer expense. That is as transparent as it is dishonest.

I was going to talk about the Academic Review Board.  None of us knows what will replace it. I’m worried about that.  [AB1 usurps the constitutional authority of the Supt. of Public Instruction with an unelected Academic Review Board.  70% of its members will be either political appointees or employees of education-by-exclusion. The Board is empowered to establish or contract for independent schools.]  But, I’ll quote Republican Sen. Dale Schultz: “I don’t think that the average citizen of Wisconsin realizes what we’re talking about is really eliminating completely the authority of local school boards and making them subject to a political board in Madison.”  I want to say a word about DPI and the power that Rep. Knudson and others are chafing at. The Superintendent is an elected office, and that power comes from our Constitution and from the voters.
You want to give taxpayers’ money to schools where the many hundreds of deaf students I knew, now tax-payers themselves, would have been denied entry.  Education-by-exclusion will either reject children with special needs or even worse, accept them without competent staff to teach them. That borders on the criminal.
As we have seen in Milwaukee, you intend to invest public funds in fly-by-night education-by-exclusion or private religious schools. The former is immoral, the latter is un-democratic.

You talk about helping public schools to improve, but you vote to gut their funding, demoralize and demean their teachers, and threaten to shut them down. Your definition of helping needs a lot of work.

You promise freedom and choice, but you eviscerate school funding, restricting both freedom and choice for the vast majority of our children and their parents. Your promise is a lie.

Public schools include everyone. They have nurtured the American Dream and taught us how to exercise both our choices and our freedoms.  They are the heart of our communities and the foundation of our middle class. They symbolize our moral commitment to one another and to future generations.

AB1 is immoral. It shows contempt for local control. It betrays the parents who love their public schools and sent you here to represent them.

It is immoral to turn our children into cash cows for your campaign donors.  Morality lies in the full funding our public schools.  On behalf of the Constitution you swore to support, the parents who trusted you, and our vulnerable children who need your protection, I ask you to reject this bill and with it, reject public funding of education-by-exclusion. 

Thank you

What the School Takeover Bill Means to Wisconsin & What You Can Do About It

Say goodbye to local control, Wisconsin.

As promised, Wisconsin Republicans put "school accountability" at the tip-top of their agenda for the 2015 session, and on the very first day in session, they introduced the very first Assembly bill of the year (the Assembly version of Senate Bill 22): 2015 Assembly Bill 1.

Public schools are the heart of our communities.  This bill is nothing less than a heart transplant:  it takes control of local schools away from local communities and puts it in the hands of politicians and their appointees.

This is big-government over-reach at its most blatant and hypocritical and it's really shocking that such a bill could come from the same Republicans who claim to oppose big government control of local decision-making.  And we know that this is just the first of many bills this session that plan to chip away at local control and equity in school funding, even with Wisconsin in the top five states cutting public school funding since the recession.  Sen. Alberta Darling has plans in the works to proposes a New-Orleans style "recovery zone" that would allow takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools. Despite continued failures and evidence that private voucher schools under-perform public schools, Republicans have also pledged to go forward with even more voucher expansion, major changes to state funding for public schools based on "performance," writing new "Wisconsin standards" to replace the Common Core State Standards, and perhaps most nefariously of all, reviving the highly contentious "Special Needs Voucher" plan that has been opposed by every advocacy group in the state representing our most vulnerable students.

Calling this an "accountability" bill is a very sneaky move. Accountability is great.  Any schools receiving public funds SHOULD be held accountable to taxpayers.  But this bill does not provide a coherent, effective plan to hold schools accountable.  It provides a way for politicians to put forward their agenda through an entirely un-accountable "advisory" board.  Let's call it what it is: a public school take-over bill.

This bill mandates cookie-cutter punishments for public schools statewide and takes away the power and authority of education experts at DPI and local, democratically-elected school boards.  Worse, instead of providing tools and support that allow local communities to address the unique needs of public school students in their local communities, it usurps control from local taxpayers and demands "failing schools" be converted to charters; a specious move that has no substantive basis in fact or performance, but is sure to line the pockets of the for-profit charter and "school choice" industry clamoring to support the bill through its many well-paid lobbyists.

It's no surprise, then, that the bill is taking heat from all sides, with a long and growing list of opposition.  It's worth cataloging some of the loudest among these:
  • Former Republican Senator Dale Schultz calls the bill "a disaster." "I think they're playing with fire," Schultz said. "I don't think that the average citizen of Wisconsin realizes what we're talking about is really eliminating completely the authority of local school boards and making them subject to a political board in Madison."
  • The Wisconsin Association of School Boards warns  that "Not only would this be a state takeover of local schools, but it would reduce the amount of state aid to every public school district in the state."  
  • School officials all over the state oppose the bill. And the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance blasts the bill for relying on the disproven myth that punishment will "improve" schools, and for putting standards for "accountability" in the hands of a board which would not itself be held accountable.
  • The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which has already implemented an elaborate "report card" accountability structure, exposes the list of struggling schools that face takeover (largely those underfunded and facing high percentages of low-income students).  “It is vital that any proposal to hold schools accountable results in improved outcomes for all children and is constitutionally viable in relation to the state superintendent’s authority to supervise schools,” DPI spokesperson Tom McCarthy said.
  • Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council says that the bill "sets public schools up for failure" by providing penalties without strategies or tools to improve performance.
  • Alan Borsuk cautions against labeling schools as "bad" and advises legislators to "Proceed with great attention to the human sides of all this — the kids, the teachers, the school leaders, the programs."
  • Tim Slekar, Dean of Edgewood College's School of Education, writes that the bill "stabs at the heart of our communities: our public schools"   and proposes that any "accountability" efforts begin by holding legislators themselves accountable to answering to the people of Wisconsin.
  • Conservative backlash has been abundant, and the conservative-leaning "Stop Common Core Wisconsin" group is vehemently opposed to the bill, calling the grading system it relies on a "sham" and pointing out the many ways the bill revokes local control of local schools.
  • Even the far-right Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty bristles at the idea that voucher schools be held "equally" accountable and calls out the folly and danger of establishing a board of political appointees to oversee public and private schools alike.
  • The only "interests" NOT taking aim at the bill, in fact, are those with direct links to the organizations lobbying for "reform" (read: privatization) of public schools.
More to come: voucher schools profit while students fail.
Photo: MTEA
The School Takeover bill is a 29-page document that rewrites the law to revoke local control of local schools by taking decision-making authority away from democratically elected school boards consisting of people from the community, and putting decision-making about local schools (including whether or not "failing" schools should remain open, and what measures should be taken to improve them) in the hands of a 13-member Advisory Panel that would consist mainly of hand-picked political appointees.

Since the bill is in the wordy, confusing legal/political jargon of legislation and they're counting on the average parent/taxpayer/educator/whatever not to read it, I went through the bill carefully line by line and will highlight in this post what it means to local public schools.  I've divided the material into 3 sections:
  • What's in this bill?
  • Why is this bad for local control and my local schools?
  • What can I do about it?
What's in this bill, anyway?
  • AB-1 repeals the superintendent's authority to intervene to help "low-performing" schools, as well as the current statute that determines how those schools are funded, and it repeals and revises many of the provisions of the statutes related to "parental school choice" or "voucher" program that allows students to get a taxpayer-funded voucher (currently of $7,210 for grades K-8 and $7,856 for grades 9-12) to pay for tuition at a private school.
  • The bill replaces DPI's current accountability system with an ill-defined new "academic review system" that will be determined and authorized by a new Academic Review Board, which would start evaluating schools in the 2017-2018 school year. Unlike the current system, which is headed by the democratically-elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, the board will consist of 13 members with staggered four-year terms:

    • State schools superintendent Tony Evers and six members nominated by him—a public school principal, a charter school staffer, a private voucher administrator and schoolteacher, and one representative each from the state's technical colleges and University of Wisconsin-System.
    • One at-large member and one technical college representative nominated by Gov. Scott Walker.
    • One nominee from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) and Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse).
      Source: WASB
    Read that list again, closely.  It's entirely possible under this structure that only ONE member of the board (the Superintendent) is a democratically elected official.  It's further possible that only ONE member of the board (a principal) actually works in traditional public school. [The Assembly Minority Leader is directed to appoint a school teacher employed by a district (which could be a charter school teacher); all the other politicians can just appoint "an individual"].  This means it's entirely possible that voucher and charter schools have a louder voice (and vote) on the board than public schools, even though public schools serve the vast majority of Wisconsin children.  And it's possible that with six political appointees, special interest votes or even lobbyists could outnumber them all.
  • The bill also establishes a few key responsibilities of the Academic Review Board: establish rules for awarding "incentives" to high-performing schools and "consequences" for low-performing schools; collect and evaluate data and determine a system for assigning "scores" to each school; develop "improvement plans" (subject to sanctions); and approve three "alternate" tests to measure performance.

    A public school that fails to improve after being subjected to "Step I" sanctions will be automatically converted to an "independent charter school" by the board.  Independent charter school means operating independently from the school district, i.e. not subject to local control or under the authority of the taxpayers of the district.
  • Annual review of schools based on 4 criteria: test scores and growth in reading and math using controversial value-added measures, gap closure in these areas, and attendance & graduation rates.
  • "Educational Options" mandate. The bill requires local school boards to inform all parents and guardians of children 3-18 in the district of the public, private, and charter schools operating in the district. This is basically a mandate for taxpayer-funded free advertising for private and for-profit charter schools.
Why this is bad for local control and my local schools?

Currently, we can personally hold our schools accountable through local school boards.

If your local school board no longer makes the most important decisions about your local schools, YOU no longer have a say in those decisions either.  You cannot attend a board meeting and share your concerns.  You cannot influence the decisions that affect your kids.  Political appointees in Madison would be making the decisions about what's best for your kids.  

Public schools are the greatest and most successful example in America of how democracy works best: when local people have local control of their own schools. This bill calls for allowing political appointees to do the job that's usually done by democratically elected local leaders - who know our schools and our communities best.  This bill takes democracy out of the equation.  It takes YOU out of the equation.  But not your kids. Your kids will still be held "accountable."

It puts partisans and those with conflicting "interests" disproportionate power and authority over public schools.

And it puts the future of our schools in the hands of standardized testing structures which we know don't accurately reflect the "performance" or "potential" of students or schools.

Public schools are the schools of choice for the overwhelming majority of Wisconsinites. We love our public schools and we love that local control means we can make sure our community schools meet the needs of OUR communities.  Why should a voucher school principal have as much say in what happens to public schools than a public school teacher or principal? How can one teacher from, say, Wausau, represent ALL teachers at all public schools in Wisconsin? And why should anyone on the Academic Review Board have more say about what happens to OUR local schools than our local communities?  Cookie-cutter solutions cannot fit the unique character and concerns of our communities. 

Local decision should be made at the local level, by people invested in the results, not at the statehouse by people invested in making a profit.

Finally, there are a number of major concerns "under the surface" of this bill that general public is not likely to be aware of.  My friend Donna Pahuski has provided a great summary of these risks, and points us toward one thing we can do to avoid them:
I know that not everyone has the time or interest to follow what is happening with regard to education reform at the WI statehouse, so here is the latest heads up. The majority party is fast-tracking a bill to reduce public opposition to school vouchers -- SB 22-- otherwise known as "The School Accountability Bill."
For the first time in our state's over 20 year history of vouchers (tax-payer money following kids into private/charter schools, mostly in MILW), voucher proponent lawmakers think they finally have the thing that will help them overcome the tremendous resistance that our WI citizens have put up against expansion of the voucher program -- this bill.
What this new proposed bill misses is that accountability is only real accountability when controls are in place and variables are isolated. Here are some real factors and variables that this bill does not address and these lawmakers have "ants in their pants" to pass it before you notice all of these shortcomings.
1. Private/Voucher/Charter schools doors are NOT open to everyone. Conversely, public schools are REQUIRED to take all comers and cannot refuse anyone. This right of each child to a free and appropriate public education was established in our WI State Constitution, Article 10, Section 3, established 160 years ago. So if vouchers schools continue to be allowed (as they are now) to refuse anyone they want and cherry-pick students much like Ivy League colleges are free to do, would you expect that school's test scores to be above or below the state average?
2. Public schools are required by federal and state law to serve the needs of children with disabilities. Do you think there will be a differences in the test scores (part of the accountability bill package) of schools that educate a school population with 20% with special needs and one with 2% special needs? Further, those voucher schools that may have accepted 2% with lighter disabilities are not required to keep these students after collecting the tax-payer money, as we have seen with many choice schools. Hence, these students could be entered or exited to circumvent test windows. And when that happens, vulnerable children can lose skills and suffer social-emotional stress, which the public schools will once again have to address.
3. Private/Voucher/Charter staff are not required to pass the same background checks as their public school counterparts. The WI Department of Public Instruction maintains and audits a large clearinghouse of background check data on public school staff, whereas, private schools are allowed to simply comply with their faith organization or corporate requirements to prevent liability and get insurance. If lawmakers really do want true accountability for the people's money, all schools taking tax-payer money (including private schools that accept tax-payer dollars as vouchers) should submit their staff names to the DPI background check data base. True accountability not only means that children are learning, it also means using due diligence and keeping track of people who are teaching children to ensure their safety. Why have two separate systems when one is not only more efficient and accountable but cost-effective?
There is a hearing on this "Accountability Bill" on Weds, Jan 14th at 10AM in Room 417 North (Gar Hall). If you are able to attend, please do so. If you care to stand in the path of this ALEC- driven march toward a "dual school system" -- one for the poor and the disabled and one for every one else-- please contact your WI lawmakers and tell them we have to find more equitable ways to improve struggling schools. Oh yeah, and WI is #2 in ACT test scores in the country (we were #1 for 10 years) so how "failing" are our WI schools anyway?
What can I do about it?
While many are predicting that this bill will be passed despite the outrage from all corners (and Walker wants to sign it), the moral imperative to speak up has never been greater.  Fatalistic acceptance of the bill sends a message of consent - and the entire ethos of Monologues of Dissent is built on the necessity of voicing the will of the people, even when that will is openly disregarded, disparaged and dismissed by those in power.  Silence assures passage; dissent demands consideration of our concerns.  MTEA has some excellent suggestions for what you can do to fight this bill: