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

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