“My son and his school are not for sale,” said Peg Randall Gardner of Milwaukee, ten hours into a hearing on AB1, Wisconsin’s latest school privatization bill. “These are real children living real lives in the classrooms of our state, and it’s their future that this bill sells out,” she told the Committee on Education of the Wisconsin State Assembly at a public hearing on January 14.
The hearing started off with a bang: Committee Chair Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) announced that he would be circulating a substitute amendment later in the week that excludes the controversial Academic Review Board, a proposal that would have allowed political appointees to take over “failing” public schools and turn them over to private charter school operators. Over 200 schools across the state would have been vulnerable to privatization under the original terms of the bill.
Thiesfeldt, a former religious school teacher, said he also planned to add a provision to the amended bill allowing local school districts to reject the Common Core standards and associated curriculum and testing regimes. Those two changes create a completely new bill.
Saying the Academic Review Board proposal “just added another level of bureaucracy that is not necessary” to the so-called school accountability bill, Thiesfeldt all but claimed the provision was a publicity stunt designed to grab media attention. “If anyone plans to engage the public on an issue, you gotta get ‘em to pay attention somehow. This bill clearly has successfully done that.”
Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) raised a procedural issue at the start of the hearing, questioning its legality. “According to our joint rules, this hearing should not be held without a fiscal note. . . . This is going to have a huge impact on our school districts.” Thiesfeldt blamed the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) for failing to produce a fiscal assessment of the sweeping proposal in the two working days between the date of the bill’s introduction and the date of the hearing. He allowed the hearing to continue without it.
“If we’re having a hearing on a bill that has changed that dramatically, I’m finding it difficult to go forward until I actually see the bill that we’re hearing today,” said Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains). Thiesfeldt told the committee there would be no new hearing on the amended bill and that he hoped to take a committee vote and move it to a vote of the full Assembly within eight days.
Over the course of the 11 ½ hour hearing, only one person spoke in favor of the measure: Rep. Thiesfeldt himself. American Federation for Children lobbyist Scott Jensen and School Choice Wisconsin lobbyist Jim Bender spoke "for information purposes only," since neither they nor their organizations appeared to be legally registered as lobbyists in the State of Wisconsin at the time of the hearing. They both argued that private and religious schools receiving public voucher money should not have to be measured by the same standards nor face the same consequences for failing to meet those different standards as public schools.
Public schools advocate Heather DuBois Bourneane called out Jensen and Bender on their claims that voucher schools have produced “pockets of success.” “We all know what pockets of success are full of – money!” She went on, “If we’re serious about creating successful schools, lets fund them at rates that provide equitable opportunities for success for every single student in the state. Period. This is not a complex idea.”
In a rare public display of dissention among the Republican ranks, Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson) reminded Thiesfeldt that prior attempts to shift responsibility for public schools away from the DPI have resulted in court challenges that upheld the DPI’s constitutional authority, and cautioned him against re-introducing the review board concept.
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.
Milwaukee special education teachers Amy Mizialko and Sheila Plotkin laid the same argument out to the committee with raw emotion.
Mizialko described the deprivation many of her students experience, including kids going without health and dental care, socks, food, mattresses to sleep on or a permanent address. “This is POVERTY. What don’t you see? This is poverty,” she said. “This legislature can’t punish and starve our students of the resources they need to learn and then declare our students to be failures.”
"You use the failures you have engineered to justify an exclusionary education system. That is as transparent as it is dishonest," said retired teacher Sheila Plotkin. “It is immoral to turn our children into cash cows for your campaign donors!”
Milwaukee Public Schools’ new Superintendent Dr. Darienne Driver worked in Philadelphia during the roll out of the charter school takeover of public schools there. Rep. Knudson noted that portions of AB1 were modeled after that “turn around” concept of closing public schools and re-opening them as private charters. He asked if she would recommend that model for Wisconsin.
“The initial optics—buildings are fixed up, uniforms are there, there’s a lot of excitement around the Promise Academies and the Renaissance Schools—but then when you talk about progress and change over time, it’s still not there,” Driver replied. She recommended that the committee look critically at similar “turn around” projects in other states, “But I think to be fair you should start here with the people doing the work and that doesn’t seem to have happened.”
In the closing hour of the hearing, teachers and members of the public who had taken the day off of work to testify seemed beleaguered but fierce in their determination to let the committee know what they thought of what Greg Gordon called the “ghost bill” and the process by which it was being fast-tracked through the legislature.
“Just when I think I can’t get any more cynical I find out I was wrong,” said Gordon. “It’s a real disgrace to have everybody prepare and rush around last minute to talk about a bill that is so important, have everybody rush down here and make these arrangements and say, never mind, this isn’t the bill.” Gordon concluded his remarks by asking Thiesfeldt to hold himself accountable by grading himself on this question: “How do you think your performance was in crafting this bill and in running the hearing on this bill today?”
Thiesfeldt declined to answer.
Anna Moffit, incoming member of the Madison Metropolitan School District board of education, a mother of three children with disabilities and advocate for families threw Republicans’ rhetoric about the need to shake up the status quo back in their court. “For those who say we have to change the status quo, I couldn’t agree with you more. The status quo has been to cut funding to public schools, to siphon dollars to unaccountable private schools and discriminate against people with disabilities. So I’m all for stopping the status quo.”
After sitting through eleven hours of painstakingly detailed criticism of AB1 and the unusual process, freshman law maker Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) said, “There’s an awful lot of cynicism here about what our agenda is and it’s way overblown.”
DuBois Bourneane said that what was worse than the content of AB1 was the fact that concerned citizens and professional educators would not have a chance to weigh in on the not-yet-written substitute amendment before it went to a vote. “This is a foreclosure on democracy,” she said.
A week after the hearing, no substitute bill has been published, nor has a vote been scheduled. The measure appears to be stalled pending a hearing of a similar bill in the State Senate next week.