Watching Wisconsin laws as they impact education

Senator Johnson Works to Stop DOJ Investigations Protecting Title II

Last week, Johnson introduced an amendment to the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Act of 2016 that would specifically bar the Department of Justice from enforcing the ADA for those private schools receiving public funding.

Background: Title II requires that state and local governments give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services, and activities, including education.   From 2011 to 2016, the DOJ had been investigating Wisconsin’s voucher school program based on a claim from the ACLU that several voucher-funded private institutions had openly discriminated against students with disabilities, often excluding them from programming.

Paige Alwood, a spokeswoman for Ron Johnson said, “In a voucher program, the parent chooses to send her child to that participating school.  Accountability is maintained, and possibly even enhanced, by the fact that a parent is selecting that school as being in the best interest of her child,” according to the Washington Post. According to the Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel, Johnson aide Patrick McIlheran said this amendment “would keep the DOJ from expanding its jurisdiction in ways the law does not permit.” Others see this as a serious concern.  Recent law changes have increased access to voucher schools, and students with disabilities want the same access to those changes as anyone else.  “We’re talking about schools that serve tens of thousands of children, and that would not have obligations under the ADA to reasonably accommodate children with disabilities,” said Karyn L. Rotker, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.State Superintendent Tony Evers said, “”I am not sure how that fits the spirit and values of any system of education.”  Removal of oversight does not typically produce good qualities for students.

Connection for English Language Arts/ NCTE:

The needs of all learners must guide every decision made in education.  The 2014 NCTE Education Policy states: “Equity is paramount. Because all students have a right to expect a high-quality literacy education, educators, administrators, and policymakers alike must create the conditions that support literacy learning.” Removing oversight that would help ensure all students access to education is unwise.


Voucher Expansion

Wisconsin Act 297 adds Christian Schools International to the list of entities that are accrediting agencies and pre-accrediting agencies for purposes of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the Racine Parental Choice Program, and the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program and the Special Needs Scholarship program.

Implications for Wisconsin Public Schools: Sixty-five percent more schools signed up to participate in the Wisconsin Parental Choice program (WPCP) in the coming school year. The number of schools increased from 82 in the 2015-16 school year to 135 for the next academic year. (MacIver Institute)  The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that over the next 10 years, $600 million to $800 million in taxpayer funds will be shifted from public schools to private schools through the voucher program (KenoshaNews).

Implications for Wisconsin Students: An investigation into Baraboo’s St. John’s Lutheran School highlights a controversy.  St. John initiated rules that required parents to provide a birth certificate to know the child’s born gender and sign a parent handbook agreement listing what a student can be disciplined and expelled for, including homosexuality.  The principal of St. John’s asserts, “If we cannot legally refuse students who are struggling with homosexuality or gender identification, we must maintain our right to hold to the truths of God’s Word…In other words, although we do not have the right to refuse admittance to people choosing an outwardly sinful lifestyle, we do maintain the right to discipline and dismiss students for these choices” (Baraboo News Republic).

Connection for English Language Arts/ NCTE:

NCTE’s 2014 On Academic Freedom states, “ Educational institutions may present alternative views and values, but may not impose or require belief or commitment.”   In addition, “Educators and educational institutions must refrain from academically unjustified inquiries into beliefs, values, interests, or affiliations of students and faculty.”  Schools that expel students for homosexuality or create a culture of fear by asking birth certificate documentation impose and require beliefs.  While many private or charter schools will accept and nurture all children, an expansion of funding into schools who would reject or suppress student freedom and identity is disturbing.

Special Needs Voucher

In February 2016, SB 615 passed with Compromise Voucher Funding Amendment, permitting a child with a disability to apply for a $12,000 voucher and attend a private school.  Only students with IEPs who have been attending a public school for the previous year and were declined to enroll in a different public school through the open enrollment program are eligible. There is no income requirement. Similar laws had been debated before, but failed because private schools do not have to follow the same rules as public schools with regards to students with special needs.  In one of the voucher expansions this year, it passed.

Implications for Wisconsin Public Schools:  According to Molly Beck of the Wisconsin State Journal, more than 400 students with disabilities are expected to attend private schools using taxpayer-funded vouchers, resulting in a $5 million reduction in state funding for public school districts (June 28)  This follows a June 24th Beck article that states the amount of state money spent on each student using a private school voucher has increased by about 14 percent since 2010,while, at the same time, the amount of money the state spends on each public school student has decreased by about 4 percent.

This Tweet from the MacIver Institute, a Wisconsin-based conservative think tank, sums up one side,  “This system is no longer going to deny children the educational options that they so richly deserve,”  and this Tweet from Democratic Representative Peter Barca sums up the other side, “Assembly Democrats are now speaking out against #SB615, which will gut millions more from WI public schools.”

Connection for English Language Arts/ NCTE:

Repeated NCTE position statements urge schools to employ certified and licensed teachers who know and understand the students, content, and standards they are teaching.  While many students with Individual Educational Plans will need minimal additional assistance, there are many that will need extensive and specialized help.  Schools who accept learners have an obligation to meet student needs in order to have student fully develop the literacy skills.

SAGE Program Ends

Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) funded schools with low-income students in kindergarten through third grades to keep class sizes small. A twenty-year old Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction initiative, it has been ”shown to raise achievement and graduation rates, especially among black students.”  Specifically, according to a Value- Added Research Center Report of the UW-Madison, compared to non-SAGE students and schools, SAGE  had positive effects on kindergartner’s reading academic growth, K-2 math and reading academic growth, 9th and 10th graders staying in school, and fewer disadvantaged students dropping out.  The Legislature replaced the program with one that allows instructional coaching for teachers and one-on-one tutoring for students instead.

Effects on Wisconsin Schools:

According to WisconsinWatch.org, “The state Department of Public Instruction charged [this change]  will “dilute” the positive impact of the program.  It is notable that SAGE schools had a higher proportion of African-American students, a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students, and a lower proportion of white students than non-SAGE schools (UW).  This program was viewed by many as a key effort to reduce the achievement gap.

Connection for English Language Arts/ NCTE:

In April of 2014, NCTE’s “Why Class Size Matters Today” states, “Overall, research shows that students in smaller classes perform better in all subjects and on all assessments when compared to their peers in larger classes.”  In addition, the 2015 NCTE Education Policy Platform states, “Equity is essential to meet America’s promise of equal opportunity for all citizens.” Cutting a program proven to help close achievement gaps does not further equity.

Milwaukee Schools Face Tumult

An outgrowth of a state law drafted by Republican Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills and Rep. Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield and passed as part of the 2015-’17 state budget created the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP), which critics refer to as the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) Takeover Plan. In this plan, a Commissioner appointed by the Milwaukee County Executive and operating independently from the Milwaukee School Board could target five failing schools for radical governance changes.  The first commissioner, Demond Means, a nearby superintendent and MPS grad, resigned June 29, citing an adversarial environment that “is the last thing our children need” (source). As a result, the head of the state Senate, Scott Fitzgerald, said lawmakers may cut the budget for Milwaukee Public Schools because of the local resistance to OSPP.

Background: The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has identified 55 Milwaukee Public Schools that fail to meet expectations, representing 83.3 percent of all “failing” schools in Wisconsin. This takes place in a complex city, named #6 in Forbes 2015 Top 10 dangerous cities, where 80 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch.  Milwaukee has one of the oldest-running voucher programs, starting in 1990.

Proponents of OSPP point to the challenging statistics in Milwaukee, arguing since 90% do not read on grade level and 75% do not attend school regularly, something must be done.  They point to Milwaukee charter school successes and tout market reform.  Opponents of OSPP say that charters scores are not better than public schools, and assert charters dismantles and privatizes the public school system, removes local control, furthers inequity as more English language learners and students with disabilities remain in public schools,  and is part of a biased system where white legislators remove authority granted by black voters.

Connection for English Language Arts/ NCTE:

NCTE Policies, including the 2016 Education Policy, affirm innovative approaches to education, and the OSPP is a step to try to answer the complex needs of the school children of Milwaukee.  The statement continues: “Regardless of neighborhood, family circumstance, or personal situation, all students have a right to fully qualified teachers and to classrooms and curricula that enrich their lives and provide a foundation for growth as productive citizens,” which is a goal for the OSPP.  However, community, schools, and teachers must have part of the educational decision making, which the OSPP takes away, and they must have funds, which are threatened.  The complexity of Milwaukee demands greater wisdom and selflessness.

Wisconsin sees increased teacher shortage.

Wisconsin’s teacher pool is dwindling.  In 2015, there were an average of 3.2 candidates per vacancy, down from 6.6 candidates in 2012, according to Wisconsin Education Career Access Network data.  State Rep. Jill Billings reports in the  LaCrosse Tribune,  “A few years ago, schools that were able to get 150 applications for an open position are now seeing 30 to 50 applications instead.”  Fox6Now includes substantiating specifics: In the Mequon-Thiensville, the district has an average of 16.9 applicants per vacancy, down from 31 applicants in 2012, the data indicate.

Enrollments in Wisconsin teacher preparation programs are down, from 12,323 students in 2008-’09 to 8,887 in 2013-’14, the most recent year available (source).  Viterbo University of La Crosse saw a drop in education enrollment from 121 students in spring 2011 to 60 students in the spring of 2015. The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse saw overall enrollment increase from 2011 to 2014, but in the same years education saw a 10 percent drop (source).  Among the state’s teacher preparation programs, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh saw the steepest enrollment decline, at 1,526, or 70%, since 2008-’09. Same source)

It is also increasingly hard to retain teachers, with many teachers leaving at the five or six year mark.   In the 2014 school year, only about 4 in 10 Wisconsin school districts had teaching staffs with on average at least 15 years’ experience — down from 6 in 10 in the 2011 school year.


Connection for English Language Arts/ NCTE:

NCTE has repeatedly signalled a value for highly trained teachers (among them, a 2004 Guideline to Prepare Teachers with Knowledge on Child and Adolescent Lit; 2005 CEE Position about Technology; 1998 Resolution on Licensure).  Wisconsin and the nation must consider and abate factors that are leading to teacher shortages.

State Superintendent Remains Independent

Wisconsin lawmakers passed Act 21 in June of 2011, which vests  the Governor’s office power to enact, amend and enforce administrative rules.   Administrative rules have the same force and effect as statutory laws passed by the legislature.  Governor Walker interpreted this act as giving him final say on administrative rules related to public education.  The Wisconsin Constitution, however, puts the supervision of public instruction in the hands of the state superintendent, and the conflict resulted in Coyne vs Walker, which was decided 4-3 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in favor of Coyne in late May.  This is the second time in twenty years the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled to assert that the office of superintendent has  constitutionally vested powers to create and implement its own policies.

Background:  Supporters of Coyne argue that Act 21 was a purposeful diminishment of public education by Governor Walker, who wrangled with Evers over his adoption of the Common Core State Standards, his opposition to the expansion of the state’s school voucher system, and how to rate schools under the state’s accountability system.  Supporters assert the State Superintendent is an elected position, and if the superintendent is not doing the will of the people, will not be elected again.  Supporters’s views of Walker can be found in Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the conservative legal group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, who lamented the court’s ruling Wednesday, saying “the superintendent’s power to make regulations has ebbed and flowed over time, presumably in a constitutional manner. Therefore, the superintendent does not need unchecked rule-making authority to fulfill his/her constitutional duties.”

Connection for English Language Arts/ NCTE:

One of the first NCTE positions in 1970, Involving Teachers and Students in Decisions Regarding Educational Accountability,  states, “Resolved, that teachers and students, the parties most crucially involved in the learning process, be actively involved with state and local school administrators, school boards, community groups, and parents in making decisions regarding accountability structures and procedures.”  Direct election of a State Superintendent allows greater involvement of the public in ensuring good schools.

March 13, 2016 Post

Wisconsin Changes Teacher Certification Laws

On March 8, Governor Walker signed into law 2015 Wisconsin Act 259, which will  allow school districts to hire non-traditional candidates that qualify for an “experience-based” teaching license to teach vocational education subjects (source). Under this bill vocational subjects include: agriculture; child services; clothing services; food services; housing and equipment services; family and consumer education; family and consumer services; home economics-related occupations; healthcare-related occupations; business education; and marketing education.  Teachers hired by a school district are issued an initial three-year teaching license by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and once that license is expired, DPI may issue a professional teaching license to the applicant as long as they have successfully completed the curriculum, which is determined by the school board that established that curriculum (source).


Wisconsin is facing a teacher shortage.  Some vocational teaching positions have been hard to fill in Wisconsin, particularly in rural areas, but increasingly so across the state.  Proponents of this bill attest to the difficulty in hiring licensed teachers in these areas and assert that people with years of job experience would be qualified to teach.  Opponents of the bill state reference that last year, there were proposals to allow anyone with “real life experience” to get a teaching position (Wisconsin State Journal, Wi Department of Instruction).  Opponents assert that loosening state standards of licensing puts Wisconsin education near the nation’s bottom and does not address central issues, such as why a teacher shortage exists and why teacher retention is increasingly difficult. Opponents assert that there are already means to hire uncertified teachers under emergency licenses when situations warrant such actions.

Connection for English Language Arts/ NCTE:

NCTE has repeatedly signaled a value for highly trained teachers (among them, a 2004 Guideline to Prepare Teachers with Knowledge on Child and Adolescent Lit; 2005 CEE Position about Technology; 1998 Resolution on Licensure).  While this particular law centers on non-English related positions, there have been clear indications and proposals that would allow all Wisconsin teaching positions to be held by untrained teachers meeting “real life experience” qualifications.  Teaching of reading and writing is complex, and teaching of critical thinkers is even more so.  Wisconsin deserves highly qualified and trained teachers in its classrooms.

February 6. 2016 Post

Wisconsin Targets Transgender Bathrooms

The Wisconsin Assembly held public hearings on Assembly Bill 469, introduced by Rep. Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum) and Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), which limits which bathrooms transgender students could access.  Under the proposed law, public schools would be required to designate restrooms and changing rooms “male” or “female” and require all students to only use the room designated by genetic gender.  Later amendments allow for single-stall restrooms available to transgender students or other requesters whose parents/guardians request the accommodation in writing.


Proponents of this bill argue school safety.  A release by Representative Kremer states, “This bill is first and foremost to keep our kids safe. Clarifying the appropriate use of bathroom and locker facilities will ensure that the dignity of all students is respected in these areas where privacy and safety are paramount.”  Molly Beck, a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal shares more reasoning: “When he first drafted the bill earlier this fall, Kremer said safety fears could arise when female students entering a bathroom are followed by someone and they don’t know if that person is a transgender student or someone “up to no good.” Kremer and Nass also state this bill “reinforces the societal norm in our schools that students born biologically male must not be allowed to enter facilities designated for biological females and vice versa.”

Opponents argue for the mental health of transgender students, asserting requiring students to go into same-gender bathrooms place transgender and gender non-conforming students at risk for discrimination and harassment  In an article, Megin McDonell, interim executive director of Fair Wisconsin, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights advocacy organization, said the bill “singles out, isolates and stigmatizes transgender students, who often already face harassment and exclusion at school. It also undermines the advances many school districts across Wisconsin, and the nation, have made allowing students to use facilities and participate in sports and activities consistent with their gender identity.”  Other opponents argue this law would place school districts in jeopardy of lawsuits: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice have said discrimination against transgender people, including bathroom restrictions, is a form of sex discrimination covered under the Civil Rights Act.

Nationally, organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign note that this law is part of an “alarming uptick of anti-transgender state bills across the country.”

Implications for Wisconsin Public Schools:

The proposed law may contradict what local school boards have established.  More than 60 school districts have created local policies to address access concerns for their transgender students, according to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article.  The article states, “John Forester, director of Government Relations for the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance, said the bill would force districts to violate recent interpretations by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights, and would jeopardize districts’ access to federal funds.”    Further questions arise about  the bill’s definition of sex “as determined by an individual’s chromosomes and identified at birth by that individual’s anatomy”: does this require a district to have a database of genetic information about students?

Connection for English Language Arts/ NCTE:

NCTE recognizes the need to support all students, as evidenced in its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Academic Studies Advisory Committee.  Long recognizing the reality that LGBTQ students need to see themselves in the literature present at school, NCTE values the need for students to have a safe bathroom option in place.  Students who feel validated and safe at school will learn better.

January 2, 2016 Post

Wisconsin Public Schools Limited to Access Funding

Wisconsin state legislators are looking to limit school district in how often they could ask voters to pay for building project or operational expenses and would no longer be allowed to exceed revenue limits to pay for energy efficient projects under 2015 Senate Bill 355 and Assembly Bill 481.  Under the proposed law, school districts would be prohibited from sending a referendum to local voters for a period of two years after a failed referendum, and would be limited to posting referendums to regularly scheduled elections.  This prohibition would apply even if the proposed referendum had no connection to the failed referendum.


In the early 1990’s, Governor Tommy Thompson implemented revenue caps on Wisconsin public schools limiting how much school districts could collect in state aid and property taxes, the two main sources of school revenue. Revenue caps increased each year generally keeping with inflation, until 2009, where the cap slipped under inflation. In July, 2011, Governor Walker and the Republican legislator drastically cut revenue caps: “the budget that year cut the revenue cap by $529 per student” (Borsuk), resulting in a $834 million cut  in state K-12 education spending  (Hetzner and Richards).  Since then, school have struggled to maintain programs, and rural schools, facing revenue caps and declining enrollments, have been impacted the most.

In response to limited school funding, many schools have turned to local voters.  In 2014 alone, there were 206 referenda, a ten-year high (Beck).  Since 2011, district residents have voted in referenda 380 times, approving two-thirds of them (Wisconsin Budget Project).

Bill supporters cite high Wisconsin property taxes as a reason for the bill and argue that referenda proposers should not use off-cycle election dates to promote interests.

Bill opponents respond that this bill is unnecessary as local voters have control to approve or decline referenda, and that further limits on school fundraising could be disastrous.

Implications for Wisconsin Public Schools:

An analysis by the Wisconsin Budget Project asserts forcing “districts to wait two years after a failed referendum would have reduced or delayed new resources for school children in 31 districts by nearly $200 million since 2011” (Journal Sentinel).  According to Pat Greco, superintendent in Menomonee Falls, “We would be totally out of cash reserves by November…We couldn’t make payroll” (Journal Sentinel).

Research and Connection for English Language Arts/ NCTE:

When schools are faced with short resources, school district leaders are faced with impossible choices.  With less money to hire teachers, class size inevitably goes up.  Nationally, “Today public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than before the recession of 2008–09, while enrollment has increased by 800,000, and class sizes in many schools are at record highs”  (NCTE Position: Why Class Size Matters. 2014).  In 2004-05, Wisconsin ranked 18th among the states in the number of students per teacher. By 2011-12, Wisconsin’s ranking had dropped to 30th (Wisconsin Budget Project, “Fewer Teachers”), and that was before Governor Walker’s drastic cuts.  Without adequate funding and without means to go over state-mandated revenues, class sizes will increase.  In addition, vital funds for professional development, supported by NCTE Position: Principles of Professional Development 2006, will be curtailed.  School districts are increasingly curtailing professional development as a cost-saving measure.



Beck, Molly. “GOP proposals would limit Wisconsin school district’s ability to raise revenue.” Capital Times. 27 October 2015

<http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/gop-proposals-would-limit-wisconsin-school-districts-ability-to-raise/article_01dfd1b8-e594-50d8-83b7-5b1d840ef632.html>  Accessed 1.2.2016.

Borsuk, Alan.  “The state of revenue caps and why schools are worried.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  1 August  2015.  <http://m.jsonline.com/news/education/the-state-of-revenue-caps-and-why-schools-are-worried-b99548250z1-320379611.html> Accessed 1.2.2016.

“Fewer Teachers, More Poverty Make Challenges for Wisconsin Schools.” Schools. Wisconsin Budget Project.” 27 August  2014. <http://www.wisconsinbudgetproject.org/fewer-teachers-more-poverty-mean-challenges-for-wisconsin-schools-2> Accessed 1.2.2016.

Hetzner, Amy and Richards, Erin.  “Budget cuts $834 Million from  Schools.”  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  1 March 2011.  <http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/117192683.html>. Accessed 1.2.2016.

Johnson, Annysa.  “GOP bills would limit how school districts ask voters for tax increases.”  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  1 November 2015.  <http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/gop-bills-would-limit-how-school-districts-ask-voters-for-tax-increases-b99606803z1-339178381.html> Accessed 1.2.2016.

“Proposed Limits Would Make it More Difficult for Voters to Approve New Resources for Schools. Wisconsin Budget Project.” 27 October 2015. <http://www.wisconsinbudgetproject.org/proposed-limits-would-make-it-more-difficult-for-voters-to-approve-new-resources-for-schools>  Accessed 1.2.2016.

Richards, Erin. “Walker budget puts Wisconsin spending per-pupil spending below national average.”  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  15 May 2015.  <http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/budget-puts-wisconsin-per-pupil-spending-below-national-average-b99500713z1-303897251.html>  Accessed 1.2.2016.
“Superintendent Blasts Plan to Limit School District Referendums.”  Wisconsin Public Radio. 27October 2015. <http://www.wpr.org/superintendent-blasts-plan-limit-school-district-referendums> Accessed 1.2.2016.