My notes on state gov’t plans to close 5% of WI public schools every year A.K.A. Hearing on #AB379 #SB286

WI Senate Education Committee meets today 10AM to take up the “accountability bill”. Then at 10:05AM it will conduct public hearings.
Room 411 South, Wisconsin Capitol Building

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Image source

I went to the latter half of AB379 – – what’s being called the “accountabiity bill” in the Assembly Education committee* – a hearing for a bill which, in theory, imposes requirements for all private school pupils to be tested in a manner consistent with public schools and makes the results public in some fashion.

In reality this bill is designed to close 5% of Wisconsin’s public schools every year and send their students to charter schools at taxpayer expense. To help get this accomplished in a stealthy manner (well, that’s how I look at it), legislators have put it through at least 6 drafts.**

A surprisingly low number of people came to the hearing on Wednesday. It could have been due to the fact that there were 12 Assembly hearings and some number of Senate hearings – -what one friend called a “legislative dump” and what another speculated was timed to distract us all from developments in the John Doe II investigation.

Before I go into my notes from the hearing, I should note some info that came to me through an AP story:

* Nobody supported this latest version of the legislation on the senate side at a public hearing on Wednesday.

* It may not have enough votes to clear the Assembly Education committee. (A sentiment shared by a legislator I spoke with after the hearing.)

And according to AP “a Senate committee” will take up a more narrowly tailored version of this bill on Thursday in the executive session at 10AM in Rm. 411S.

AP: “Support does seem to be coalescing around a much narrower proposal, up for a Senate committee vote on Thursday, that has no sanctions for schools. It would also not assign letter grades to schools and instead would focus on ensuring that data from private schools in the voucher program is included on the current report cards for public schools.”

Wisconsin Soapbox has followed this initiative for months and Andy “gets” all the educational jargon – oh – and he’s a teacher. So he has a fuller report on this than I do. Rebecca Kemble of The Progressive should be providing a report any moment now as well.

You may also want to dig into the testimony provided by Dan Rossmiller of Wisconsin Association of School Boards. [A PDF document]

For what it’s worth, here are a few of my own notes and observations from the hearing:

* A former social worker of 20 years in the Milwaukee Public School system testified that a rush to classify schools as ‘failing’ is disrespectful to the schools, to the teachers, and to the students and is simply the wrong approach to take.

Her testimony was excellent but it goes in the opposite direction of committee chair Kestell (and probably every Republican on the committee) whose primary concern seems to be finding a test that makes both voucher and charter school lobbyists happy.

Voucher and charter schools look to be sworn enemies. Yet one legislator I talked to isn’t convinced there’s no wheeling and dealing between the two forces.

* Nobody I heard testifying during my time at the “accountability bill” hearing on Wednesday would say what a “charter management organization (CMO)” is exactly DESPITE the fact that if a school fails repeatedly under the bill’s new letter grading system “the school board must permanently close the school or contract with a high-quality charter management organization (CMO) to operate the school as a charter school”.

Yes that’s right. Wisconsin’s legislature is completely unhinged from the public it, in theory, serves.

* There was much discussion of the Smarter Balance test and some frustration expressed with Jim Bender’s circuitous non-answer answers about how it would work for students in what were called “his schools”. Jim Bender is President of School Choice Wisconsin (meaning he’s on the voucher side of things).

At one point the committee Chair, Rep. Kestell, seemed to grow frustrated with lobbyist Bender’s non-answer answers and Kestell snapped, “That smokescreen doesn’t cut it anymore. If the legislature says Smarter Balance, it’ll be Smarter Balance.”

Rep. Sondy Pope said she’d watched Bender’s*** commentary on testing over the years and has noticed that he had always been against testing his students (voucher school students) in using something that can be compared to public school students.

Who Is Allowed to Form A New Voucher School?

After the “accountability bill” hearing we moved on to a brief hearing on a bill, AB 748, supposedly intended to screen out “fly by night” businesses and specify “Preaccreditation and accreditation requirements” for new statewide voucher schools that will serve up to 500 students in the 1st year under the “Parental Choice Program“.

One of its proponents made the mistake of saying this bill would help prevent another Lifeskills Academy (the voucher school in Milwaukee that abruptly close mid-December after collecting $200,000 to teach students in 2014).

The usually ever magnanimous Rep. Sondy Pope sternly replied it would have done nothing to prevent a Lifeskills Academy.

The Lifeskills Academy conversation provided the most verbal heat in this hearing. Nobody, to my recollection, asked about what the students would be taught in these schools though I do suspect it will be a whole lotta religious doctrine.

Actually it’s not just a suspicion. From the get-to, as noted in this post by Bill Lynch of ACLU, the voucher expansion excluded all non-religious voucher schools that applied in 2013.

I also see it in the set of organizations that are, as set forth by this law, the bodies that can approve the lesson plans that will be used by accredited schools*:

Transformation of Learning at Marquette University,
Wisconsin North Central Association,
Wisconsin Religious and Independent Schools Accreditation,
Independent Schools Association of the Central States,
Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod School Accreditation,
National Lutheran School Accreditation,
Wisconsin Association of Christian Schools, and the diocese or archdiocese within which a private school is located.

What sort of lesson plans do you suppose they will approve on the topics of evolution and sex education? Or should I say “creationism and abstinence”?

DPI’s Director of Private School Choice Programs, Tricia Collins testified in favor of this bill at the side of lobbyist Jim Bender. Collins also made a request for two additional DPI staff members to help the agency process all their new voucher business. Rep. Kestell cracked a little joke about Collins’ support for the bill being contingent on the new staff people and several committee members chuckled back. I probably looking like I needed a puke bucket right about then.

After the committee adjourned I asked Collins how many of the new statewide voucher schools are expected to be religious. Her reply was I don’t know (nobody on the committee asked this question).

I told her I was disturbed to see public money go to what I presume is religious purposes because it is in violation of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

Her reply: I am sorry you feel that way.

A hearing on the senate version of this accreditation bill is scheduled for the today Thursday 2/13 at 10:05AM, Room 411 South in the Wisconsin Capitol building.

Footnote: I regret that I ran out of time to write about Scott “convicted felon” Jensen and Fred Clark’s good questions in this hearing. More to come on this.

*This process is called “Pre-Accredidation”. Here’s a copy of WRISA’s pre-accreditation application form current as of December 5, 2013.

**W.A.S.B. more diplomatically describes the six times redrafting here.

***Bender said during testimony that he formerly worked under Senator Scott Fitzgerald.

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