Testimony: Wisconsinites Strongly Oppose School "Accountability" Proposal

The following testimony will be presented to the Senate Committee on Education Reform and Government Operations today, Jan. 27, 2015, at the hearing on the so-called School Takeover Bill, Senate Bill 1 (SB1).  If you want to know why those who care about public education in Wisconsin stand united in opposition to this dangerous bill, please read and share with your friends, encouraging them to speak out NOW to defend our schools.  You can click here to find out more about the bill how you can submit your own testimony to the committee.  

Many thanks to Pam Kobielus of the No Vouchers Coalition for sharing her powerful testimony and doing her part to make an impact in her community to protect local schools from the privatization efforts that threaten the future of our schools and our children.  Her organization conducted a survey of Wisconsinites, and the results she shares in her testimony make clear that they overwhelmingly oppose legislation which weaken and punish struggling public schools while they give voucher schools a free pass to continue siphoning public funds from the schools that need it most.



Relating to: the school and school district accountability report, chronically failing schools and school districts, and educational options information

My name is Pamela Kobielus.  I am submitting this statement to the record as written testimony in opposition to Senate Bill 1 (SB-1) and ask that this testimony be distributed in its entirety to all members of the Legislative Committee on Education Reform & Government Operations.  

Good morning members of the Committee on Education Reform & Government Operations. I am the founder of “The No Vouchers Coalition”, located in the northern community of Merrill, WI.  Unlike corporate lobbyists who claim to represent the interests of public school parents while donating large sums of money to Republican candidates in Wisconsin to promote lobbyists’ “for-profit” educational business interests, we are a true – and rapidly growing -- voluntary grassroots organization representing member public school parents, business owners and other taxpayers who support the public school system.  Our group charges no membership fees.  Our group accepts no donations, nor does our group make contributions to any political party or candidate.  Our group’s sole interest is in ensuring that elected representatives protect educational opportunities for each and every child in Wisconsin.

I have attended both public and private schools in Wisconsin, graduating from the public high school in in Merrill, WI in 1972.  I went on to graduate with a Bachelor in Business Administration (B.B.A.) from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, WI, and, received my Masters in Business Administration (M.B.A.) from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, MA.   I have more than thirty (30) years management and executive experience working in private industry, transferring the knowledge I acquired in school to successful positions working in media, commercial banking, mortgage banking and in the utility, healthcare and technology industries.  I have first-hand knowledge of the benefits of a public school education.  It is what prepared me for the future and it was instrumental in my success working in private industry, and, also, in running my own profitable businesses.

Several years ago, I retired to care for my widowed, retired mother who is now 83 years old.  My plans to spend my time caring for my parent were interrupted, when I accidentally learned in the local media that our school district was struggling with cuts to the public school education budget.   After attending local Board of Education meetings in two separate years, I undertook personal research to determine the genesis of the budgetary problems facing our rural public school districts in Wisconsin.  What I found alarmed me, and, in the summer of 2014, I founded “The No Vouchers Coalition” with a small group of other concerned residents.  In the past seven (7) months, our group has grown rapidly as more and more people learn what has happened to funding for our local public schools over the last decade.

In the manner of the magicians, Penn & Teller, it is our intention to peel away the onion of Republican legislators’ proposed school reform.  Because what we found will make public school parents of any political affiliation angry, we will continue to pull back the curtain to show voters in Wisconsin what is fact and what is fiction in Republican legislators’ magic act.

As those of you on the Committee who are also in private business know, it is easy to “make” something – even something good -- fail.  You can make a project, a business division, or even an entire company fail.  First, one can withholding funding for the entity you wish to destroy.  Figuratively speaking, you shut off its air supply, slowly choking it to death.  Second, you can withhold authority while still holding management accountable for performance, which is now out of their control.  However, these methods are not ethical nor are they good business sense when the entity you wish to destroy is producing a quality product that is needed and which contributes to the economic health of the community.

What Republican legislators in the State of Wisconsin are attempting to do is to cause public school districts to fail by defunding their operations, so that privately-run for-profit businesses can “take over”, have “unfettered access to”, “get their mitts on” – however you wish to describe it – large, very large amounts of public taxpayer money.  We’d like to remind legislators that those tax dollars, sourced from hard-working families in our local communities, belong to the taxpayers of Wisconsin and should remain in Wisconsin, benefiting the children of Wisconsin, and not some out-of-state for-profit business whose primary loyalty is to individual stockholders or hedge fund managers. 

The media is catching on as well.  In an editorial published this week (on January 26, 2015), the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram noted: “There’s also a segment in the private sector that would love to get its hands on the billions of taxpayer dollars now used to support public schools. Whether those folks would be in the long-term best interest of most students is far from clear.”

The No Vouchers Coalition agrees:  Wisconsin’s public school children are not for sale to the highest bidder.

You may ask how our group came to learn that Republican legislators are actively working to defund Wisconsin’s public school districts.  The answer is: we had to do our own research.   For example, we learned that for the school year 2013-2014, it was mandated that public schools take $64 million off the top of their budget in order to fund primarily privately-run, charter schools located mostly in Southeastern Wisconsin.  We found that few people understood this meant deducting the following amounts from budgets of Northern Wisconsin public school districts:  $219,568 from Antigo; $876,928 from Eau Claire; $1,976,652 from Green Bay; $182,169 from Medford; $262,120 from Merrill; $54,259 from Rhinelander; $405,509 from Superior; $29,367 from Tomahawk, and, $757, 025 from Wausau.  The entire list of cuts, which negatively impacted our local public schools can be found here:  http://pb.dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/pb/pdf/2013_14_2r_Deducations_by_District.pdf
Furthermore, we determined that Republican legislators did not make clear to public school parents, local businesses or other taxpayers that these cuts to local public school districts were mandated in order to fund primarily privately-run charter schools.  How do we know this?  We surveyed members of “The No Vouchers Coalition” and other members of our local communities.  That is how we know.  We asked -- something Republican legislators failed to do.  And, while the distribution of our surveys was not meant to be a statistical sampling of the community, 90.2% of respondents told us that legislators did not make clear these monies were to be taken from local public school districts to give to privately-run charter schools.  In summary, Republican legislators do not have a mandate from voters for the types of reforms which are being proposed in Senate Bill 1 (SB1).  We would posit that the only mandate which Republican legislators have is to serve the business interests of privately-run education corporations which donate to the Republican caucus.  We suggest that it is necessary and indeed appropriate for all legislators to hold public hearings throughout Wisconsin, on days and at times that are convenient to working families.

For clearly communicating the intent, purpose and amount of public school budget cuts for the 2013-2014 school year, I give Republican legislators a grade of:  F

We also heard from Gov. Walker that he had increased public school budgets for the 2014-2015 school year.  Gov. Walker’s claim included a sin: a sin of omission.  That is, we determined that while public school budgets for certain school districts were increased, 48% of school districts across that state saw significant budget cuts.  For example, we identified the following cuts for public school districts in my immediate area:  $88,092 for Antigo; $462,700 for Merrill; $565,078 for Rhinelander; and $297,443 for Tomahawk.  We began to see a clearer picture that pointed to an ongoing, systematic defunding of local public school districts.

So, we again surveyed our members and the public to see if Gov. Walker made clear to them the fact that nearly half of public school districts in Wisconsin received budget cuts for the 2014-2015 school year.  We found that 95.5% of respondents said that Gov. Walker did not make these additional budget cuts clear.

For clearly communicating to Wisconsin residents the fact that nearly half of public school districts got significant budget cuts for the 2014-2015 school year, I give Gov. Walker a grade of:  F

The negative impact of budget cuts on our local public schools is evident from sample comments submitted by survey respondents to The No Vouchers Coalition, including:

“There have already been cuts to programming that our public school system used to provide.”

“Our school district recently successfully passed a referendum to stabilize funding for our schools. We are up in the northwoods and there are no adequate alternatives to public education...”
“I have seen reduced staffing and larger class sizes. Our district is having a referendum this spring.”
“I have no children in school now, but have talked with parents who have said their children no longer have the same opportunities as mine did.”
“There has been some staff reduction.”
“I have seen a reduction in staff and programs in our school district. We recently passed a referendum for sports and technology.”
“My kids are in grades 5, 2, and 4K. Their classes have gotten larger in size in the past couple of years and their teachers are clearly being asked to do more with less. The "teacher wish list" now includes things like printer paper! They are being asked to provide their own paper for the printer so that my kids can have worksheets.”
“We have had cuts to programs, cuts to the arts and larger class sizes. We have a hard time retaining the quality of staff we used to. We have not had a referendum recently but we have closed all the schools we can and it was a huge community loss and family loss.”
“There has been reduced staffing, increased fees to parents, reduced busing, referendums to increase local property taxes, our district does not have the technology needed for every child.”

As you can see from member and citizen comments, budget cuts are hurting our public schools and the children they are supposed to serve.  The pain you are inflicting on families who live in our rural communities is very, very real.

As elected legislators, you have an obligation to provide necessary funding “for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as possible (Wisconsin Constitution, Article X, Section 3).”  With these repeated public school budget cuts, you have failed to meet your obligation to the children of Wisconsin.

Our members, who include small business owners, also understand the negative impact these budget cuts have on local communities.  In Merrill, WI, for example, my hometown, where taxpayers regularly pay taxes to the State of Wisconsin, our local public school district has had state aid for public schools cut $262,120 in 2013-2014 and $462,700 in 2014-2015, for a total of $724,820 over a two year period.   We found similar cuts to public school budgets in district after district throughout Wisconsin.

The compound negative affect of fewer tax dollars being returned to citizens can and does have a devastating impact on jobs and the economic health of businesses in our local communities.  As legislators, you are systematically removing these monies from our local communities.  When fewer tax dollars are returned to our communities to circulate locally, job growth stagnates, taxable wages decline and local businesses suffer.  In addition, homeownership declines shrinking the property tax base necessary to fund community services, which in turn either increases local property taxes or results in cuts to community programs and services.  

Because of all this, we encourage all our business members to contact the recently formed Wisconsin Business Alliance to better understand the negative impact that public school budget cuts have on job growth, local taxes and the economic health of the communities in which we live.

While these monies no longer circulate in our struggling local economies, they do fatten the coffers of lobbyists and the privately-run education corporations whom these lobbyists represent.  As you know, these lobbyists were the only people testifying in support of Assembly Bill 1 (AB1) earlier this year and were granted preferential scheduling over the testimony of Wisconsin citizens who had traveled from all over Wisconsin to testify in opposition to that bill.  

As we talked with members in our communities to gauge their understanding of public school funding, it became apparent that Republican legislators’ desire to implement bold education reforms are not clearly understood by Wisconsin voters.  So we asked our members and the general public which “tool” they preferred to stabilize public school funding:  (a) local property tax increases, (b) cuts to school programs and services, (c) a combination of tax increases and school cuts, or, (d) none of the above.  Property tax increases and/or school budget cuts were unacceptable to more than 96% of our members.

With regard to giving local communities adequate “tools” to offset reduced state aid for local public school districts, Gov. Walker did not clearly explain how these “tools” work, and I give him a grade of:  F

Senate Bill 1 (SB1) also includes a mandate to defund public school districts that have one or more “chronically failing” schools.  Republican legislators propose measuring the success or failure of public and independent charter schools by creating a new report card by which two separate “accountability boards” will judge performance.   In effect, legislators are creating an “easier” test for independent charter schools to take in order to receive a passing grade.  If legislators are so confident in the ability of independent, charter schools to perform, we challenge them to first require these schools to meet the same nationally recognized standards and operating requirements that public schools must meet.   I suspect, given that the State of Wisconsin has lost more than $139 million to unaccountable, privately-run for-profit schools over the last decade(1), legislators do not have this confidence and therefore are proposing an “easier” test for these schools.

Creating an “easier” test for independent charter schools takes budget and staff resources that are just not available, given the $2.2 billion deficit Gov. Walker and the legislature now face.  Taking additional money from the Department of Public Instruction, or, from Wisconsin’s general budget to create this separate method of grading school performance only adds to the budget pressures of local public school districts and/or increases local property taxes. 

Rather, we believe that legislators are not confident that independent, charter schools can meet the current standard of accountability that has been established for public schools.

Meaningful improvements in school performance can only be achieved by first addressing the underlying issues of poverty, the need for affordable housing and the availability of jobs with family-sustaining wages.  These conditions exist in all Wisconsin communities, not just in larger urban areas.

Second, improvements can only be realized if public schools have resources necessary to implement evidence-based best-practice strategies.  Given Act 10’s $1.6 billion cut to public school budgets, the additional budget cuts absorbed by public schools over the last two years, as well as cuts to food share programs and the refusal to accept the return of tax money (that Wisconsin citizens paid to the Federal government) to improve access to healthcare insurance programs, we are not confident that Republican legislators will fund Wisconsin’s public school system in a manner adequate to implement performance improvement plans that may be mandated.

Senate Bill 1 (SB1) differs from Assembly Bill 1 (AB1) in that it calls for establishing two separate “accountability boards” for any school receiving public funds.  The bill would establish (1) the PACB - Public and Charter School Board, and, (2) the CAB – Choice Accountability Board for schools receiving voucher money.  Each of these boards would have the authority to review annual reports and identify “failing” schools, review and implement “improvement plans” (for public schools only!).

What is different, and, in our view perhaps unconstitutional, is the fact that the public school accountability board would be appointed by the Superintendent of Public Schools, while the private school accountability board would consist of the Governor’s political appointees.  


First, the Wisconsin Constitution (article X, Section 3) calls “for the establishment of school districts, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable…”  Separate accountability boards is not uniform.   The full scope of accountability standards at the federal and state level as proposed are not uniform.

Furthermore, the establishment of Academic Review Boards (ARBs) violates current law by usurping the authority of the State Superintendent in the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).  As noted earlier in this testimony, Republican legislators appears to be purposely setting up the DPI for failure by (1) defunding public schools, and, (2) by slowing removing constitutional authorities vested in the DPI, while still holding DPI accountable for both current and proposed (new) performance standards.  In private industry, it is the equivalent of your boss reducing your budget significantly, then requiring you to bring a project in on-time, with a smaller budget, using the original specifications and quality requirements, while taking away your management authority and giving it to your co-worker, whose budget is larger and whose performance standards are set much lower.

Senate Bill 1 (SB1) also gives the Public and Charter Board full discretion to “implement or modify any requirements required to be in a school district improvement plan.”  This appears to be purposely vague.  For without specific changes to this language – reviewed and approved by local communities – this appears to allow a politically-appointed board to punish and take control of local school district decision-making authority.  Whereas local school districts with locally-elected Boards of Education providing oversight currently have the autonomy to make changes and implement improvement plans, SB1 would allow the PACB to usurp local authority, giving the PACB the ability to do anything it wants from shuttering schools, selling off property and facilities, to replacing staff with lower-paid, less experienced teachers whose “life experiences” form the basis for the granting of professional licenses and certifications.

Republican legislators never asked their constituents – local families, businesses and other taxpayers – how they felt about giving up the authority they vested in elected members of their local Board of Education and turning that authority over to a partisan board appointed by the Governor.  However, we did.

We told our members and other community members taking the survey that Republican legislators may be trying to create a statewide board of unelected officials with the authority to create privately-run charter schools anywhere in the state of Wisconsin – paid for with local property taxes.  We asked whether they preferred locally-elected Boards of Education, or, a statewide board of unelected officials managing local community schools.  The answer was very clear:  97.3% preferred a locally-elected Board of Education.   We find it ironic, to say the least, that the Governor and Republican legislators in Madison continually complain about federal mandates (and the lack of state control), then demonstrate the height of hypocrisy by proposing legislation designed to take away local control and authority by legislating the creation of a state-level board of appointed officials. 

Let’s be clear.  The proposed penalties for public schools found to be “failing” are harsh and swift.  “The bill authorizes the 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…”  The penalties are intended to pull funds from schools and districts where the tax base and budget are least able to support implementation of effective improvement plans.

By contrast, the only penalty for privately-run voucher schools that are identified as “chronically failing” in SB1 is to freeze enrollment at current levels for a period of three years.  These “chronically failing” schools would continue to receive public taxpayer funding (vouchers) from the state as long as the student remained enrolled at the private school.  Senate Bill 1 (SB1) contains no provision or penalty to the “chronically failing” private school for not meeting standards, for failing to demonstrate achievement, for shutting down in the middle of a school year, or, for leaving the State of Wisconsin.  Penalties for “chronically failing” private schools are anything but penalties.  And Republican legislators should know that a substantial percentage of our members and other taxpayers are well aware of the types of chronic failures associated with these types of privately-run schools – most likely as a result of media reports noted earlier in this testimony.  To proceed without clearly establishing in SB1 immediate and harsh penalties for privately-run schools who misuse public taxpayer money is a dereliction of legislators’ fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers.

Finally, with respect to “accountability”, SB1 proposes letting schools make an appeal after being labeled a “chronically failing school” and letting the politically-appointed board decide whether or not “exceptional circumstances justify (the school’s) performance on the annual accountability reports.”  Because public schools must maintain current operating and performance standards, while privately-run schools do not (and are graded using the *easy* test), this has the appearance of being an underhanded way of setting up public schools for failure, while giving “chronically failing” private schools access to a “free pass”.   

If the Assembly and Senate fast-track this bill knowing what we have told you today that your constituents are saying, we will hold those legislators accountable at the ballot box – for failing to adequately communicate the contents of this bill, for failing to communicate how Governor Walker’s “tools” hurt public schools and increase local property taxes; for failing to fulfill a constitutional obligation to provide adequate funding for public schools that are open to all Wisconsin children, for failing to consider the negative fiscal impacts on jobs and the economic health of our communities, and, for failing to acknowledge constituents’ strong preference for local control.

Finally, we ask Wisconsin legislators to identify all the authors of Assembly Bill 1 (AB1) and Senate Bill 1 (SB1), so that Wisconsin taxpayers can see the financial campaign donations made to legislators by privately-run, for-profit educational corporations seeking to expand their business footprint in Wisconsin.

In summary, we oppose Senate Bill 1 (SB1) as written.  We ask legislators to incorporate the express wishes of their constituents in the final language of the bill, and, then, to hold hearings with constituents across the State of Wisconsin on days and at times that are convenient to the working, taxpaying families they represent.

Thank you.

Pamela Kobielus
Founder, The No Vouchers Coalition
Merrill, WI

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