My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
The Wisconsin Assembly has opened for business with the introduction of Assembly Bill 1. Education reform has taken the first priority with the first bill dubbed the “School Accountability Bill.” Unfortunately, it is a deeply flawed bill for a whole host of reasons.
The objective of the accountability bill introduced by Reps. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, and Jessie Rodriguez, R-Franklin, is one for which education reformers from all political persuasions voice support. It is to bring some more accountability to all schools that receive taxpayer dollars including public, voucher and charter schools.
To enact this more rigorous accountability, the bill proposes to replace the existing accountability rules by creating an Academic Review Board comprised of 13 appointed members. The ARB would have the power to create the evaluation system for measuring schools, create charter schools, hand out incentive to exceptional schools, levy punishments for failing schools and, eventually, completely take over public schools that are chronically failing. That is a lot of power for an unelected board.
The first problem is the notion of a state board to oversee and manage schools to this degree of granularity. There are 424 public school districts in Wisconsin containing 2,295 schools educating almost 900,000 children. Add to that the 241 charter schools and numerous private voucher schools and it is a massive system for a single board to attempt to manage effectively.
Although some broad oversight from the state is necessary to ensure that state tax dollars are being spent efficiently and effectively to educate kids, the level of authority the bill gives to the ARB goes much too far. It would allow the ARB to undermine the power of local school boards which are best equipped to respond to the needs of their communities.
The second major flaw with the bill is in the makeup of the proposed ARB. In a typically complicated bureaucratic matrix that attempts to balance the interests of all of the major stakeholders, the 13 members of the board would be comprised of the state superintendent, six appointees of the state superintendent, two appointees of the governor, and an appointee from the leaders of both parties in both the state Senate and Assembly.
Out of the box, the makeup state superintendent would control a majority of seven of the 13 positions. In addition, the Democrats would control two to four of the remaining seats depending on whether they are in the majorities or if there is a Democratic governor. The state superintendent and the leadership of the Department of Public Instruction have historically been strongly opposed to school choice and the Democratic Party has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions.
As proposed, the ARB would have broad discretionary authority over the school choice programs and be permanently controlled by anti-choice public school zealots. That is not a good combination for advocates of school choice in Wisconsin or the parents of kids who attend choice schools.
Unfortunately, any such board similar to the proposed ARB would have to be controlled by the DPI thanks to a 1996 court ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court that forbids the state from creating an education bureaucracy that would pull authority away from the constitutional office of state superintendent.
This accountability bill is a well-intentioned effort to respond to calls for more accountability of all schools in the state. However, it misses the mark by creating another onerous unelected bureaucracy with far too much power to be wielded by antichoice partisans.
State Republicans should scrap this effort at accountability and work instead on making schools more accountable through the parents of the kids in those schools. Put the money and the choice in the hands of parents. No bureaucrat in Madison will ever hold a school more accountable than an angry parent who can send their kid elsewhere.
(Owen Robinson’s column runs Tuesdays in the Daily News.)