Wisconsin Education Reform Only ALEC Could Love

After months of talking about "reforming" Wisconsin's public schools, Republican state legislators are starting to move on a number of proposals. The greatly anticipated bills bear the marks of having been poured through the filter of the American Legislative Exchange Council's agenda for school reform before they were exposed to the light of day.

ALEC Exposed - A project of CMDThis week, for instance, there is a hearing on a voucher bill for special needs children that appears to be modeled on the ALEC Special Needs Scholarship Program Act. Other measures are in the works to hold teachers "accountable" for the performance of their students, but not at voucher schools of the type supported by ALEC.

ALEC "Special Needs" Bill Sends Kids to Schools with No Federal Protections

In 1990, Milwaukee was one of the first cities in the nation to implement a school voucher program, based on ALEC model legislation and passed under former Governor Tommy Thompson, who had been involved with ALEC since its early years. Taxpayers have been paying to send low-income students to private and religious schools ever since. In the 2011 budget bill, Governor Scott Walker attempted to expand the school voucher system state-wide, but only succeeded in expanding the program to the Racine area.

This week, the Assembly Committee on Education held a hearing on the latest school voucher proposal, which would allow students with disabilities to attend a private or a public school outside their district with the help of a taxpayer-funded subsidy worth more than $13,000 per student.

Assembly Bill 110 would create a Special Needs Scholarship Program that would allow special education students to transfer to private or public charter schools. The school accepting the student would receive the aid for the student and the student's former school would lose it.

Disability rights advocates and staff from the Department of Public Instruction say the proposal would divert $80 million of taxpayer money to private schools without requiring they afford the same protections that public schools must offer to students with disabilities, including those required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Private schools that accept students under the program would not even be required to have a single certified special education teacher.

Ruth Conniff of The Progressive described the bill as "a plan to trick special ed students and their families into giving up their federally protected educational benefits, in exchange for cheap vouchers that can be used in unregulated, fly-by-night academies."

Advocates fear that special ed vouchers will undo decades of work getting special needs kids into regular, public schools, encouraging instead segregated schools for autism, behavioral and cognitive disorders, and other disabilities.

The proposal is modeled on the ALEC Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, and many of the bill's authors are ALEC members, including Rep. Michelle Litjens and Senator Leah Vukmir.

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One of the bill's authors is Senator Alberta Darling, a long time ALEC member and the head of the Joint Finance Committee that cut $749 million from public education. The Badger Democracy blog released emails between Darling's office and a lobbyist for American Federation for Children, saying that the special needs bill was "not soup yet" and that AFC was "working with the authors on fixing a couple things." AFC is a supporter of ALEC and promotes ALEC model bills on school privatization. Betsy DeVos is on the board of AFC. The DeVos family earned its fortune by selling Amway products and has spent its fortune funding school privatization efforts across the country.

AFC spent a lot of money to defend Darling as she faced recall in the summer of 2011, with issue ad buys of over $230,000. Darling tried to hide her relationship with AFC by denying an open records request by a liberal group, who brought the issue to court and prevailed. Disgraced former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who was the subject of an eight year felony investigation, is the chief AFC lobbyist in Wisconsin, and has been an adviser to the ALEC Education Task Force. Jensen was recently handed the Wisconsin GOP's secret redistricting maps to examine its school choice implications before the maps were seen by Democrats or the public.

Measuring Teacher Performance, But Not at Voucher Schools

Also winding their way through the legislature are Senate Bill 461 and Assembly Bill 558, proposals Governor Walker alluded to in his January State of the State address. The bills include grants related to literacy and early childhood development, and also address teacher licensure, evaluating teacher preparatory programs, and educator effectiveness. Senator Darling is also an author of these measures.

The legislation echoes ALEC's model Teacher Quality and Recognition Demonstration Act and their "model" Education Accountability Act, including the emphasis on "performance based accountability." The Wisconsin bill would mandate that 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation is based on student performance on standardized tests and other assessments. ALEC's accountability act says criteria for measuring school quality "must address" in some manner "the results of standardized tests that measure both minimal competencies and higher order skills."

State School Superintendent Tony Evers, who is an elected offiical, is critical of Senate Bill 461 and Assembly Bill 558 because they do not require the state's voucher schools to screen students or offer remedial services. Also missing from the legislation are provisions embodied in the state's No Child Left Behind waiver request to subject all schools receiving public funds -- including Title I schools, non-Title I schools, charter schools and voucher schools -- to the proposed new state accountability system. Evers says Walker and the legislative Republicans previously agreed to include these measures in this legislation.

Evers says the agreement called for students in voucher schools and charter schools to take the same tests and abide by the same new standards that students in regular public schools will live by. Voucher schools would qualify for the new literacy and early childhood development grants, and teachers in voucher schools would have to abide by the new rules for teacher licensure, teacher preparatory programs and educator effectiveness. Senate Bill 461 and Assembly Bill 558 have none of that.

"While everyone claimed that we were creating this system together, it seems as if some have walked away," Evers said in a statement. "This missed opportunity is more than a step backward. Today's inaction leaves absolutely unclear whether the choice schools and charter schools receiving tens of millions of dollars in public funding will have public accountability. It looks as if the common accountability system that last summer seemed agreed upon may not happen."

Kathy Xiong, a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches special education in the Milwaukee Public Schools system, is even more to the point. "If voucher schools are good enough to get our public dollars and take our public school students, then they should also be good enough to be held accountable for their teaching and their students' learning in the same way that their charter school and public school colleagues are. What stronger argument could you make for an evaluation system than to say accountability is important and so all teachers will be evaluated?"

What ALEC loves most of all, when it comes to public education, is privatization. A glance at the list of ALEC's model bills for K-12 education (found here) shows bill after bill to advance the causes of virtual education, voucher schools, education "savings accounts" and open enrollment. While ALEC has several model bills for state legislators who want more vouchers and privatization in their states, none of them contain the measures for private school accountability that Evers and Xiong are asking for.

Dustin Beilke

Dustin Beilke is a freelance writer from Madison, WI. He has written for a number of publications, including Newsday, Salon.com, The Nation, PRWatchThe Progressive, In These Times, Mother Jones, The Capital Times, and The Onion.