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Is Wisconsin Ready for the Corporate Reformers of Education?

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 04 November 2013
in Wisconsin

teacher_teachingRepublicans in Madison have pushed through changes to Wisconsin’s education system, to expand private choice and charter schools and provide state tax dollars to these private entities. The loss of state aid strikes at our cash strapped public schools.


ALMA - “I just don’t understand vouchers, choice, and charter schools,” the man told me. “Could you explain?”

Public education is undergoing a radical change. What was predominately a local school governed by a locally elected school board is poised to become a plethora of choices: private religious schools, independent privately operated charter schools, voucher schools, for-profit schools, virtual schools, and public schools.

All paid for with tax dollars.

State officials recently announced enrollment information related to statewide private school vouchers. Lawmakers who supported the state budget voted to expand the payment for private schools with public money, known as voucher schools. The information released shows four out of five students who received public money for private tuition were already enrolled in a private school.

Data on the performance of these alternatives to public schools is inconclusive, poor or not available.

According to the recently released 2012-13 report cards for virtual charter schools, half of virtual school students were receiving their education from a school that did not meet expectations. Virtual charter schools are on-line schools paid for with public money.

Twenty years of experience with private vouchers in Milwaukee shows no major differences in the performance of private voucher students with public school students. The Legislative Audit Bureau in 2011 reviewed the final of five years of study to conclude students in Milwaukee who attend private schools with vouchers show few differences on standardized tests than their cohorts in public schools.

The 25 private schools in the new statewide voucher expansion received state money – over $7,000 per student – but are not required to conduct standardized state required testing for several years. Several of my Senate colleagues and I urged accountability for private schools similar to that of public schools but so far this hasn’t happened. Instead lawmakers are heading in the opposite direction

Efforts in the Senate Education Committee would expand another type of choice: a charter school that could be operated by a private out-of-state company; again paid for with public money.

This legislation -Senate Bill 76 - would allow charter schools to expand even if the school board that authorized them did not want the expansion.

All this change in public education has many people confused. Most of Wisconsin hasn’t seen the use of taxpayer money for private education. Many public schools have cut back to the bones. Parents, school board members and superintendents are asking me, “Why fund these unaccountable, private schools at the cost to our public schools?”

Data released by state education officials report almost half of public school districts will see further cuts in state money. The deepest cuts – limited to 15% by law- will go to 64 mostly rural schools. After the 15% cuts are taken out, schools then must pay their share of the independent charter schools in the Milwaukee area. Local school boards tell me this is simply not fair.

The push away from funding local public schools is part of a national effort to privatize public education. This effort is detailed in a new book by Diane Ravitch. She was appointed to public education positions by both President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton and is critical of both President George W. Bush and President Obama.

Ravitch describes efforts to transform education into “an entrepreneurial sector of the economy”. These efforts are “funded to a large degree by major foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs and the U.S. Department of Education.”

She describes this movement to “eliminate the geographical based system of public education as we have known it for the past 150 years and replace it with a competitive market- based system of school choice – one that includes traditional public schools, privately managed charter schools, religious schools, voucher schools, for-profit schools, virtual schools and for-profit vendors of instruction.”

Few of the details Ravitch mentions are part of public discussions among policy-makers. Yet observing the action of the Legislature, the influence of those who seek education transformation is undeniable.

Wisconsin must wake up to the forces behind changes in schools. Once folks know details, I suspect few would support education funds to unaccountable schools created as investment opportunities.

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Small Town People Plead with Madison Lawmakers Not to Roll Back Local Protections

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 28 October 2013
in Wisconsin

frac_sandPeople from western Wisconsin travelled to Madison last week to testify against Senate Bill 349, a bill that rolls back locals’ ability to protect their citizens.  Many local elected officials also came to testify against the bill and expressed serious concerns about the chipping away of local control.


MADISON - “Our aim when drafting the ordinance was not to stop mining in the Town of Cooks Valley but to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of our town,” said Town Clerk Victoria Trinko.

She recently testified at a public hearing about Senate Bill 349, a bill to roll back locals’ ability to protect citizens.

The bill, introduced by Senator Tiffany, would overturn a unanimous 2012 Supreme Court decision supporting a local ordinance to protect the health and safety of residents residing in the Town of Cooks Valley in Chippewa County.

Specifically at issue is the ability of local government to pass an ordinance to protect citizens from frac sand mining. Cooks Valley is an unzoned township. The town followed the law and adopted local police powers that gave them authority to enact a frac sand mine ordinance. Senator Tiffany’s bill would take this power away.

But SB 349 goes much farther. It takes away any ability of counties, towns, cities or villages to protect health and safety with regard to water, air and blasting unless this authority is expressly given to locals in another part of the law. The bill strikes down part of the law granting police powers and home rule as authority for sand mine ordinances. If the bill becomes law, it would prohibit local rules related to not only protecting but even monitoring air or water.

It became clear during the hearing that eliminating local power to protect health and safety was the intention of the bill.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) testified in favor of the bill. The group said local rules to protect the environment, health or community “simply add confusion and stifle responsible growth and business.” WMC’s lobbyist testified local standards were “based on political not health” concerns.

In sharp contrast, Ms Trinko from Cooks Valley listed by date the environmental problems with the Chippewa Sands mine located a half-mile away from her home. She spoke of dust billowing from the mine. Over a year period she was diagnosed with asthma and installed expensive home air filtration. She said she must “wear a protective mask when I am outside for any length of time.” While on vacation her symptoms completely disappeared only to reappear when she returned home.

Health and safety is also a worry of residents near Arcadia in Trempealeau County. Representative Danou joined me to testify about concerns we’ve heard from many constituents. The residents, including many children, living in two subdivisions are surrounded by five sand mines within five miles of their homes. These residents expressed so much anxiety to the Trempealeau County Board that supervisors unanimously passed a one-year moratorium against further sand mines and ordered air monitoring to be done near the mines and the subdivisions.

In my discussions with legislative attorneys, I learned if SB 349 becomes law, it is likely the Trempealeau Country moratorium could be overturned and monitoring could be stopped.

The state should not tell locals to stick their heads in the sand when the life-long health of children is at stake.

Over 100 citizens got up at dawn to travel from western Wisconsin to testify at the hearing. They listened all day as lobbyists- none who lived near the mines- spoke about the benefits of the bill. Many locals testifying against the bill were forced to wait until late to testify - by that time folks riding the bus had to leave.

One traveler was Nan Horton from Ettrick. She was prepared to tell the committee the bill “ignores the need for citizens to have a voice in decisions affecting their own health, safety, property values and general welfare.”

Similarly, Heather Anderson from Chippewa County wanted to ask, “Who has spoken to the parent who set a birthday party picnic table only to find the plates were dusted with sand in a short period and had to bring the picnic inside?”

Shortly after the hearing, Senator Dale Schultz released a statement declaring, “After hearing from constituents and listening to local elected officials in my district I cannot support Senate Bill 349.”

I urge more lawmakers to listen to their constituents and do the same!

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Lose Local Government and You Will Lose America

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 21 October 2013
in Wisconsin

peopleA bill is being fast-tracked through the legislative process. It is being sold as standardizing rules for sand mines but has implications for local powers to protect water, air or the use of explosives. The bill would make it more difficult for local government to be reimbursed for damage done to local roads and comes on the heels of several new laws that limit the powers of local government.


MADISON - “Lose local government and you will lose America,” warns the banner on the Wisconsin Towns Association website. The head of this organization has recently spent a lot of time at the Capitol.

Rick Stadelman, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, is the smartest man I know working the Capitol. He hasn’t slowed down a bit since he announced his upcoming retirement. He’s working very hard to let folks know about a bill that would strip local powers to protect health and safety.

The bill, introduced by Senator Tiffany, is reportedly aimed at standardizing rules for sand mines. But the bill would stop any local protection of water, air or the use of explosives. In addition, a complex new process would make it very difficult for locals to be reimbursed for damage done to local roads.

The proposal would prevent locals from monitoring their own air and water. Every town, city, village and county in the state would be stopped from any local efforts to protect air and water.

In addition, many local sand mine ordinances, agreements and, possibly moratoriums, would be null and void.

The proposal, it appears, was written to overturn a 2012 unanimous Supreme Court decision (Zwiefelhafer v Town of Cooks Valley) that allowed a town to use its police powers to adopt a sand mine ordinance when the town did not have zoning.

But the bill goes much farther than overturning ordinances in towns without zoning.

The bill would thwart any action at all by locals to protect air and water. Questions remain about local people’s ability to protect themselves in an emergency. Also, because of limits to local’s ability to negotiate road repair use agreements, there are questions about any agreements farmers or loggers have to use local roads with overweight equipment.

Unfortunately this bill appears to be on the fast track. I’ve received dozens of calls and hundreds of emails in just a few days asking me to stop the taking of local powers. I’ve urged those opposed to make their views known to members of the Senate mining committee.

This legislation is one of many aimed at taking away local powers. In the last three years, dozens of new laws and legislative proposals have targeted taking away people’s ability to govern themselves through local ordinances.

Legislation stopping locals from doing anything to protect renters now sits on the Governor’s desk. Also awaiting the Governor’s signature is legislation to stop locals from setting rules about firing an arrow or a crossbow in a city.

Many recently passed limits are related to restricting environmental protections: lost is local control for setting limits on erosion at construction sites; lost is local control over shorelines; lost is local control over siting radio, TV and cell towers; and lost are other limits on zoning.

Some laws related to personnel take way local power to require firefighters and police live within a city. Another law prevents any requirement to offer sick leave – paid or unpaid.

Some new laws seem to be a solution in search of a problem – like taking away local authority to limit the sale of certain foods and beverages – the so-called “Big Gulp”.

Milwaukee has taken many direct hits to its local powers. The Legislature passed bills to change the County Board; to restrict its powers and to change the Milwaukee Technical College Board.

Many other changes affected local budgets and fees making it more difficult for local people to obtain the resources to accomplish the plans people make for their own communities.

Local government is the best example of democracy. Decisions are made in our neighborhoods. We can run into local officials at the grocery store and let them know how we feel.

Local businesses or residents that need help can call their local government and get answers right away. But that’s not going to happen when politicians from hundreds of miles away make decisions affecting our neighborhoods.

The only reason Senator Tiffany’s bill is being pushed is because it is easier for certain interests to control the state Legislature than to control local people.

Passing Tiffany’s bill is wrong and would take one more step to losing democracy.

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Are the Property Tax “Tools” Working?

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 14 October 2013
in Wisconsin

mining_wisconsinThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the property tax proposal put forward by Governor Walker. The Legislature will meet in Special Session to take up the proposal which puts $100 million in the school funding formula to stem an expected increase in property taxes. The proposal does not raise the revenue limits so this new state aid will be substituted for property taxes. Questions remain about the details of the proposal.


MADISON - Perhaps the Governor’s tools aren’t working.

A recently announced infusion of $100 million into schools won’t mean any more money for children. But it will help stem an expected rise in property taxes.

State school spending and property taxes are tied at the hip.

An increase in state school spending often slows or even cuts property taxes. But the opposite is also true. Big cuts to state school aid often result in large property tax increases.

Schools suffered a $1.6 billion gouge in the last budget. The recently passed two-year budget barely made a dent in filling this hole.

“Our reforms are working,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald announcing the Governor’s plans. But local school leaders told me a different story.

Schools are limited in what they can spend by state imposed revenue limits. Many frugal school boards don’t tax to the extent they are allowed. But as state money shrinks, board members are left with few options.

Local school boards are now preparing budgets for the next school year. Many members told me the “tools” the Governor gave the districts are not working. Costs are increasing faster than boards can make cuts. Especially hard hit are rural schools. Many districts have combined classrooms, cut electives, have multi-certified teachers, share staff with neighboring districts, share sports teams and long ago got rid of much support and administrative staff.

School boards now have no choice but to levy to the maximum allowed by law. Meaning possible big property tax increases for residents.

Enter the Governor’s new “property tax relief”.

The tax proposal increases money going to schools but does not increase the revenue limit. This means schools cannot spend any more. State aid is substituted in for property taxes.

This is a good trend. But it is not nearly enough. Even with the infusion of cash, property taxes will likely rise statewide and many board members will face difficult budget decisions.

It’s been since the mid-1990s that property taxes have actually declined. According to a recent Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance (WTA) report, back in 1997 the state added more than $1 billion to school funding. Property taxes fell 3.5% over the next two years.

This trend wasn’t sustained. As the state slowed increases to schools, property taxes again rose. Over the last 10 years school aid as a percent of tax revenue has steadily fallen. Recent data released by WTA show school aid as a percent of general funds fell from 44% in 2004 to 33% in 2014.

The biggest hit to schools came in the 2011-13 budget with a $1.6 billion cut in dollars available to schools. This cut included an 8% decrease in state aid. In the recently passed budget, new money was available. Increased tax collections added $1.7 billion in new general fund dollars. The Governor spent this new money and more. But not much of it went to schools.

The $100 million in school aid would be paid for from “surpluses”. But it is entirely unclear if such surpluses exist. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau earlier this year pegged the mismatch between money coming in and money going out at over half a billion in the red in the coming budget.

Todd Berry, President of the Taxpayer Alliance recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “We’re spending more in this year and next year than we’re taking in, and that’s a fact.”

Meanwhile, DPI analysts are scrambling to assess the impact of lost federal aid for schools. Is it wise to commit another $100 million in state tax money while the operations of the federal government are shut down and threatening financial Armageddon? Perhaps waiting a week to learn if Congress raises the federal debt ceiling would be prudent.

The Legislature is scheduled to meet in “Special Session” in addition to its regular Fall Floor Period to consider the new money to schools. Many questions remain about whether local schools will see any money or residents will see any change in the late December tax bill.

What I do know is the last budget used a bulldozer to gouge a $1.6 billion hole in school budgets and gave school districts a shovel to fix it.

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Does Wisconsin Want Out-of-State Companies Running Schools with Public Dollars?

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Monday, 07 October 2013
in Wisconsin

educationThe Senate Education Committee is having hearings on a bill that would allow for expansion of charter schools statewide without taking into consideration the fiscal impact on public schools. The proposed law, Senate Bill 76, significantly impacts local control and allows out-of-state companies to establish charter schools using taxpayer dollars. And dollar for dollar those funds will be taken from public schools.


MADISON - Do we want to encourage out-of-state companies to run local schools with tax dollars? This is the objective of a bill before the Senate Education Committee.

Katy Venskus of San Jose based Rocketship Education recently explained the objective of a bill to expand charter schools was “attracting high quality national operators.”

Folks often think of charter schools as a kind of magnet school – a specialized school the local school board creates to serve students with a special interest. For example a Montessori School uses a certain approach to teach young children. The school is created by the school board and operates under a contract or charter.

Charter school advocates who attended a recent Education Committee hearing explained school boards should be required to expand charter schools when the charter performs 10% better. (Better than what was unclear.)

Should Wisconsin allow charter schools authorized by a school board to multiply without the active decision of a local school board? Should universities, tech colleges, CESAs and other entities create public charter schools run by private companies?

Private companies already run some public schools in Milwaukee. Proponents want to expand this statewide. “Wisconsin’s process for out-of-state operators is very difficult to navigate,” testified Ms. Venskus from Rocketship Education.

At the heart of the charter school discussion was the way these schools are funded. Money to run independent or “2r” charter schools comes from school aid set aside for all public schools. The more money that goes into independent charter schools, the less money is allocated for all public schools.

DPI testified the taxpayer cost of independent privately run schools during this school year is $64 million. The state pays almost $8,000 a student for over 8,000 students in Milwaukee and Racine to attend independent charter schools. This cost is born by nearly every other public school district in the state.

A DPI spokesperson also testified Wisconsin residents will likely see an increase – perhaps significant – in property taxes “if non-elected charter school authorizers are expanded statewide”.

Senator Lehman expressed concerns the school board would not be able to authorize a charter school and say to the school, “we don’t want you to duplicate.”

This ‘automatic’ duplication without school board consent, even when the charter was an instrument of the school board, led to much conversation about a loss of local control.

Committee members expressed concern about the ‘automatic’ expansion of charter schools, even those originally authorized by a locally elected school board.

Several times during the hearing the conversation turned to the underfunding of public schools in the last several state budgets. When I brought up concerns for sorely underfunded rural schools that would lose even more money under this proposal, I was told by the Committee Chairman the hearing was about charter schools and not about the state budget.

Not considering how to pay for the statewide expansion of privately run charter schools is like talking about the color of a new car but not how to pay the car payments.

Senator Darling, author of the bill, suggested the solution to funding was “to increase the pie” of school funding. But there was no proposal before the committee to change the funding of schools. There was not even an estimate on the cost of this bill.

After the Senate hearing I spent time asking folks about their reaction to the plan to open the public checkbook wider for private firms to run public schools.

People reminded me there is no evidence private charter schools have any better academic outcomes than public schools when compared on a level playing field. “The real enemy of students' academic success is poverty,” a superintendent said.

Another told me, “This bill is the key for private business to open the door and the fiscal death knell to the students who want to continue to attend public schools.”

Wisconsin is not ready to turn over the state checkbook to private companies to run our public schools. Instead let us recognize poor students cost more to educate. Our focus should be on a fair way to pay for public schools. Not on siphoning off our local dollars for an out-of-state company to run a Wisconsin school.

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