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.

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