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:

No comments:

Post a Comment