Scott Walker is now waging his war on public education by coming up with accountability standards that favor charter and private schools. His School and District Accountability Design Team consists of thirty business and education professionals from across the state.
The Design Team is led by “Quad-Chairs” Governor Scott Walker, Senator Luther Olsen, chair of the Senate Education Committee, Representative Steve Kestell, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, and Tony Evers, State Superintendent of Schools in Wisconsin. The proceedings are being facilitated by a team of high-paid consultants working with the American Institute for Research (AIR), a company that racked up $299 million in revenue for the 2009 fiscal year.
I have attended a total of three day-long sessions of the Design Team. As the process moves forward, the rubberstamping nature of this group becomes more and more apparent. Whenever one of the participants raises a question or issue not in line with the agenda, the facilitators cut them off and say, “I’m sure the quad-chairs will take that into consideration when making their decisions.”
The proposals and parameters for discussion are clearly geared toward forgone conclusions about the kinds of accountability systems that will be implemented in Wisconsin. The group is serving the purpose of a marketing focus group for the testing and assessment products that AIR will sell to the state. For example, today they spent several hours discussing the “look and feel” of school report cards – important issues such as the kinds of font to be used and whether colors or symbols should be used as visual indicators.
Earlier in the day, there was a presentation on the “regulatory environment” of education in the state. The point of this presentation was to make the argument that charter and choice schools operate under such different legal and administrative structures that statewide accountability sanctions shouldn’t apply to them. Senator Luther Olsen said, “At the end of the day, the only schools that we’re going to look at are the regular public schools.”
I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly, so in a follow-up conversation I asked him if he meant that low-performing choice and charter schools would not be subject to the potential sanctions levied on their public school counterparts. He confirmed this, adding that choice and charter schools are not accountable to the state but rather to local school district authorities.
Referring to the only accountability mechanism available to impose on charter and choice schools – either closing charters or removing private schools from participating in publicly funded school choice programs – Olsen added, “There’s no statutory basis on which we can apply accountability sanctions. With charters and choice, it’s do or die.”
I asked Senator Olsen, “If accountability sanctions won’t apply to charter and choice schools, why are they involved in these discussions?” He responded, “Because they receive public money and we want to be transparent about this.”
The real reason for the participation of charter and private schools became apparent later in the day. Part of the accountability system will involve a reporting mechanism available to the public that will assign letter grades to each and every school. These grades will primarily be based on standardized achievement test and somewhat more nuanced “value added” scores of students. Because charter and choice schools are able to be selective in their admissions and don’t have to serve kids with special needs and extreme disabilities, their grades will likely be higher than many public schools. This system will then serve as a state-funded advertising mechanism for them, without having to be subject to any of the actual accountability mechanisms set up to supposedly help low-performing schools to improve.
All of this is taking place within the context of Governor Scott Walker’s determination to privatize state resources and put public goods up for sale. Public education has been the hardest hit of all. In addition to the $1.6 billion in cuts to public education over the next two years, the expansion of charter and choice programs diverts more money away from public schools.
Instead of using the funds that remain in activities that are proven to increase student performance such as decreased class sizes, the Department of Public Instruction is investing in high-priced consultants to design testing, reporting and accountability systems that will not improve the learning environment for kids, especially kids who are not performing well in the first place.
In the September 21, 2011 meeting of the Design Team, Luther Olsen referred to an analysis of the job market in Wisconsin that showed that 36% of the jobs available in the state required a high school diploma or less. He said, “There are kids who aren’t going to go to college and we can’t bore them or scare them with high school curriculum.”
This is an extremely cynical view of what was once considered one of the best public school systems in the nation by the legislative leader in control of education policy. Whether or not Scott Walker is recalled and a new governor from the Democratic Party is elected, these fundamental, structural changes in our state agencies will have lasting effects for years to come. Nowhere are these effects more devastating than in public schools.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.