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Wisconsin Legislative Spat Signals Slow Down for Privatized Public Schools

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, 17 February 2014
in Wisconsin

assembly-bitter-debateThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the bills related to school accountability pending before the Senate and Assembly Education Committees. The Senate just acted on a watered down version of a bill because Senators did not “have the appetite” to pass a more comprehensive change. The Assembly continued to advance their version calling for closure or takeover of public schools designated as “failing”.

MADISON - “There’s ‘no appetite’ for passing a bill this year that imposes sanctions against poorly performing public or private voucher schools” reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an Associate Press story.

“No appetite” was code for “we don’t have the votes”.

The “sanctions” for public schools included forcing the closure of a school or forcing its takeover by a privately operated charter company – both options took away local school district control.

Meanwhile the Senate Education Committee met for the third time in as many weeks to take up a much-watered down version of “school accountability”.

As we read through the seventh version of the bill, lawmakers quizzed the nonpartisan Legislative Council attorney. She confirmed the primary change the bill now made was to move up the date by which private schools receiving public money are required to send their publically funded students’ information to the state.

This was a far cry away from the previous versions that required the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to label a group of failing public schools every year that could be converted to charter schools operated by a “private charter management company” – completely taking away local control through the democratically elected local school board.

As we were briefed by the attorney on what the seventh version of the bill did, the Assembly Education Committee was meeting on their version of the bill that did take away local control and allow private companies to take over the public school – albeit without the required 5% of schools assigned to the “failing” category every year.

Confused? So were we.

It seemed the only clear explanation was that a majority of Senators had “no appetite” for the steady drumbeat of privatizing public schools.

The consequence was the current law on school accountability would stay pretty much the way it was – with the reporting of student information for voucher students a few years sooner than now required.

“You can’t call this an accountability bill, it only changes a date,” Senator Lehman told the Republican members of the Senate Education Committee. “Oh, yes we can”, shot back one of the members.

Finding common ground among Republicans and creating enough policy change to go home and take credit for change seemed two impossible goals to reconcile among Senate members.

So a bill to change the date private schools must send to DPI the information about their voucher –publically paid for – students seemed like the best compromise. It appeared any other version of the bill didn’t have the votes to pass in the Senate. But that didn’t stop the Assembly from rushing a public hearing on their version of the bill.

The tension between the two houses of the Legislature has been growing as the two-year Legislative session draws to a close. The friction appeared as members were told when they would finish up Legislative business. Assembly members tell me they expect the Legislature to adjourn by the end of February, while Senators were told to stay available for floor periods as late as April.

Tensions between the Assembly and Senate boiled over in a recent public meeting reported on by the Wisconsin State Journal. The public argument between the leaders of the Senate and the Assembly focused on whether the two leaders were meeting regularly enough – but the real issue was a lack of agreement on several major initiatives including whether the Senate had the appetite to move forward the school accountability bill and the governor’s spending plan for the estimated surplus at the end of this budget.

The Senate leader cut to the heart of the matter in the State Journal story: “We’ve got a real tight majority in the Senate and with him [Assembly Speaker Vos] having a 10-seat majority, it’s much easier to develop compromise over there. It’s really that simple.”

It was the moderate members of the tight Senate that delayed the increase in the state’s structural deficit by delaying a vote on the governor’s plan, and it was those moderate members who forced a compromise on the plan to steadily turn “failing” public schools into schools operated by private charter management companies.

Kudos goes to those moderate members.

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Vinehout Endorses Free 2-Year & Tech College Tuition in Wisconsin

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, 10 February 2014
in Wisconsin

wtcsAfter reading about the proposal offered by Tennessee Governor Haslam, Senator Kathleen Vinehout suggests that Wisconsin use the state’s projected surplus to provide free tuition and fees for Wisconsinites attending technical or UW 2-Year Colleges. The cost of providing this free education would still allow for half a billion dollars to remain in the state’s coffers, and the investment in education is one that pays dividends to individuals and families as well as the state‘s economy.

MADISON - “So, what’s the best jobs plan?” The Governor asked his State of the State audience. “Easy answer: education. If we want to have jobs ready for Tennesseans, we have to make sure that Tennesseans are ready for jobs.”

With this introduction, Governor Bill Haslam announced a plan to bring absolutely free tech and community college education to every high school senior regardless of his or her grades or ability to pay.

“We just needed to change the culture of expectations in our state,” Governor Haslam told the New York Times. “College isn’t for everybody, but it has to be for a lot more people than it’s been in the past if we’re going to have a competitive work force…If we can go to people and say, ‘This is totally free,’ that gets their attention.”

It’s the season of bold plans for governors. As legislatures gather to hear State of the State speeches, state executives put their best plans forward. As bold plans go, Republican Governor Haslam’s is right at the top.

What if we could change the culture in Madison? Think outside the box and come up with a nonpartisan way to address state challenges using the budget surplus created by an improving economy?

Governor Walker proposed using the surplus to give owners of a median value home about $100 a year drop in property taxes over last year. He added other minor tax changes to his plan, including less than a dollar a week cut for 98% of all income tax filers.

Discussions of the Governor’s plan focused on the wisdom of adding to the state’s structural deficit and leaving a paltry amount in the state’s savings account. Both are important concerns.

What if we could avoid big fiscal pitfalls and also do something bold?

At a cost of about thirty cents a day per person, Wisconsinites could have the Governor’s lower tax plan. For less than seventeen cents a day per Wisconsinite the state could put in place a plan of free tuition and fees for every Wisconsin resident attending our 16 Technical Colleges and 13 UW 2-year Colleges.

If implemented in the 2014-15 school year, the plan would cost annually less than $350 million leaving over half a billion in this budget’s surplus going forward.

Putting state money into education is putting money where it works. Surveys of Wisconsin Technical College graduates reveal that nearly three out of four have jobs in their field within 6 months after graduation. Nearly 9 out of 10 graduates live and work in Wisconsin.

Putting money toward technical and 2-year UW colleges also makes sense. These schools are the gateway of opportunity for hundreds of thousands of families in Wisconsin. A college education helps raise the income of families and strengthen the state’s economy.

An absolutely free first two years of college helps families of modest means afford a four year college education and helps those one in five Wisconsinites who have some college education but lack a degree think about going back to school.

Education raises wages and the likelihood of employment. According to a recent New York Times report, “More educated workers continue to enjoy much better employment options than those with a high school diploma or less.” The problem we face is only a third of our workforce has a college degree or more. “With many less educated workers chasing a limited number of new jobs, employers have little reason to increase wages.”

Wisconsin’s economy is lagging. Wages have stagnated. Wisconsin will continue to lag the nation in personal income as long as we remain a less educated state than the national average.

Improving the education of Wisconsin’s workforce prepares Wisconsin for work and improves the economic health of the state. Families are better off which in turn benefits the state. Those who earn more, spend more, and pay more in taxes.

What would you prefer? A hundred dollars less in property taxes for a $150,000 median value home or absolutely free tuition for every Wisconsin resident at our local tech and UW 2-year campuses. Think about it. And let me know!

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Wisconsin GOP Plan Unveiled to Gradually Privatize Public Schools

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, 03 February 2014
in Wisconsin

teachlawsSenator Vinehout writes about a bill on school accountability that completely changes the current system used to report the progress of students attending with public money. The bill makes it easier for private charter school management companies to take over public schools that are considered ‘failing’ and they would not be required to answer to locally-elected school boards. In the end, there is little evidence converting a public school to a charter school will improve the achievement of poor performing students.

MADISON - “If I was going to write a bill to privatize public schools,” the Senate staffer told our small group, “this is what it would look like.”

We were reviewing a new version of a bill to test students attending private schools using state tax dollars. By this sixth version, the bill morphed into something entirely different.

The latest version of the bill was crafted behind closed doors; unlike three years ago when a wide-ranging group developed a system to test and report the progress of all students attending school with public money. Private school advocates publically agreed to the same public school accountability standards but privately lobbied for something different.

The bill reversed current law requiring all students be tested using the same type of exam. This bill allowed private schools to choose their own type of assessment and even choose the students who took the test – allowing them to game the system.

Concealed in the bill was a way to gradually close more and more public schools or turn them over to independent private charter operators.

For the next several years, 5% of public schools must be named as failing – even if those schools weren’t failing by current standards. With few exceptions, schools that failed for three years would be required to close or be operated by an independent private charter management company with a minimum five-year contract. Local school boards would have little authority over this company for five years. For Milwaukee, this change would apply to schools that failed for just one year.

It’s important to remember the strong relationship between poverty and low school performance. More resources are needed to lift scores of low performing pupils. Students from poor families need small class sizes and personal attention of highly skilled educators. Private schools can succeed when they provide the resources – but it is the resources, not the private setting, that helps poor children match performance of their better-off peers.

There is little evidence that closing a poor performing school or giving privately run charter companies control results in better performance than the locally controlled public school.

Yet this new bill required DPI to name a steady 5% of “F” schools. As more schools were closed or reopened as privately operated charter schools, the score for “F” got higher and higher for the remaining public schools – giving the private charter management organizations steady pickings of where to head next.

The bill was a dream for out-of-state charter management companies.

I remembered testimony given by local school superintendents at a recent public hearing in Pepin. Superintendents spoke of dwindling state funds and local people unable to pay higher property taxes. Teachers taught multiple subjects, schools reduced or shared staff, administrators served as teachers, districts combined sports, and maintenance was deferred – even as poverty skyrocketed and special needs students increased.

In Independence, primarily Spanish speaking students doubled in three years; three out of five students attending school live in poverty. Fifteen years ago Arcadia taught no English Language Learners. Now every third student primarily speaks Spanish. Poverty is over 50%.

I wondered what another influx of poor, Spanish speaking students would do to test scores. Many of these students had no opportunity to attend good schools in their home country. Yet the students are tested and their scores contribute to the report card. Some Arcadia schools currently hover a few points above failing. With a big influx of students in need, a school could become ‘failing’ through no fault of its own.

Under the bill, failure to turn this school around during the next two years could result in closure or reopening operated by a private charter management company – unanswerable to the locally-elected school board. I couldn’t imagine people in Arcadia or Independence wanting a company from California running their local schools.

People want schools accountable. However, this process is rapidly turning into a backdoor for private companies to take over local schools. With different standards for public and charter schools, no locally-elected control and even no consequences for poor performing privately operated charter schools for several years, the accountability legislation has become anything but accountability to those footing the bill.

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Some Cry Foul Over Rapidly Rising Propane Prices

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, 27 January 2014
in Wisconsin

home_heatingThis week Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the propane shortage and rapid increase in price. After being contacted by people concerned about the crisis, she spoke with those in the industry and did research to help folks understand the reason behind the problems and what could be done to prevent this from happening in the future.

ALMA - “I’ve been in business for 36 years,” the propane man told me. “I believe this is simply price gouging.” The propane retailer’s wholesale price went from $3.19 to $5.29 a gallon in just a few days. I wanted to know why.

At first, I heard the usual “supply and demand” story: a late planting season meant high moisture grain drew down propane supplies. Indeed, propane use to dry grain was four and one-half times larger this past harvest than a year prior.

January-like weather during the first of December meant increased propane demand earlier in the season. As one industry representative said: “It’s simply a matter of economics 101 – supply and demand.”

But things were not as simple as they seem.

“The propane industry has some responsibility here,” one man told me. “We knew reserves were dangerously low going into the harvest season,” said another.

According to Bloomberg News Service, propane stockpiles are the lowest since the government began keeping records in 1993.

I spoke those in the propane industry, listened to constituents and congressional staffers and did some digging in industry and government publications. I learned several “man-made” actions contributed to a shortage of propane.

In mid-November, Kinder Morgan Inc. shut down its Cochin pipeline carrying propane from Canada to the Midwest. The company kept the pipeline down until late December to install pumps used to reverse the flow of gas from south to north.

The company plans to sell a lightweight petroleum product to Canada to mix with heavy crude oil. The complete reversal of the pipeline was scheduled to happen next summer. However, I heard from retailers, the company upped the start-up date to mid-February – permanently removing a critical route transporting propane to the Midwest.

Many in the industry told me rail lines – another route of transporting propane to the Midwest – choose large volume contracts like coal, grain or sand – over smaller lots like propane. I learned of one retailer who ordered nine rail cars of propane last fall and still had not taken delivery. Trucks also are in short supply.

“I can buy propane for $1.50 a gallon in Texas,” one Alma man told me. “But I can’t find a truck to go pick it up.” A Pepin retailer said, “There are 186 trucks lined up [in Mont Belvieu, Texas] to get propane and they can only fill three an hour.”

The Wisconsin Propane Gas Association recently sent a letter to lawmakers explaining the shortage and the rapid rise in prices. They closed the letter with the following: Be warned, the situation in 2013-14 is not the result of a “perfect storm,” but rather due to structural flaws in the industry.

The U.S has no strategic reserve for propane and no restrictions on the export of propane.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the exports of propane and propylene have increased five and a half times in the past two years. Just in the past year exports nearly tripled.

Industry officials knew about the Cochin pipeline shut down (and the plans to reverse the line no longer delivering propane to the Midwest). They knew about the high demand for fuel to dry down grain and help cope with the very early, very cold winter. Still exports remained at the nearly triple (over last year) high figures all throughout January.

Reuters recently reported: "This is definitely an issue that will come to the surface as the fallout (of the shortage) becomes more well known," said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital LLC, a hedge fund. "The industry has been caught short, a lot of consumers are going to ask the question - why are we allowing this?"

Finding a solution involves action by the industry and government. We need an “At Home First” U.S. policy that creates a strategic reserve of propane, limits exports in times of domestic need and makes sure companies are not price gouging.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley recently requested the Federal Trade Commission “remain vigilant in overseeing the propane market to prevent anti-competitive behavior or illegal manipulation, and ensure that any supply shortages are not created artificially.” Senator Grassley has the right idea.

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Hey Governor Walker, Let’s First Pay the Bills

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, 20 January 2014
in Wisconsin

scott-walkerThis week  Senator Kathleen Vinehout writes about the new revenue estimates for the state.  The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that state will end this budget with nearly a billion dollars over the $70 billion budget.  Kathleen writes that the Legislature should look first to paying the state’s bills and putting money into the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

MADISON - Imagine you came into a bit of money. Not a lot - less than $500 on your annual salary of $35,000 - but enough to make you happy.

This is the pleasant situation state government faces: new revenue estimates predict the state will close its books on the current budget with a little less than a billion more on its $70 billion biennial budget.

Lawmakers are falling over themselves to come up with the best tax give-away. But maybe they should check the pile of past due bills first.

So returning to my story; imagine you faced hard times. You delayed paying some of your mortgage, you got behind on your son’s college tuition, you skimped on supplies for your school-age daughter, you didn’t pay all your property tax and you missed a few car payments.

Instead of catching up on the bills you missed – with new money that comes nowhere near getting you caught up – you propose to your spouse to give the money away to your friends.

If I were your spouse I’d send you outside for a while and hope the weather cooled off your foolishness.

Such is the foolishness of lawmakers who want to cut income taxes – giving most benefit to high income earners – rather than pay the bills postponed over the past years.

The almost $900 million in estimated new revenue comes with a caution to Legislators. When reporting the new revenue estimate, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) reminded lawmakers that about half of the surplus should be put away in the state’s rainy day fund – as is required by state law. This fund is woefully inadequate and was underfunded by Governors of both political stripes despite years of bipartisan calls to fund it from Legislators and citizens.

The LFB cautions that federal highway funds may be reduced – leaving Wisconsin with more of the responsibility to pay for already promised road and bridge construction. The LFB does not give a figure on the estimated drop in federal funds but this fact underscores the importance of putting money away in a rainy day fund.

In addition, LFB staff point out the structural deficit going into the next budget year in the Transportation Fund alone is $224 million. Promised spending in this last budget, including the service on new debt, raises the mismatch between estimated money coming in and money going out at almost another $120 million in the next budget.

Finally, LFB staff also points out the current transportation budget is spending much less on already committed projects than will be required in the coming budget. One example is the Zoo interchange where the state is spending less than one tenth of what experts estimate will be needed in the next budget.

The new LFB memo does not begin to touch the problems in the state’s General Fund.

Every part of the five major spending items –schools, health care, local government, corrections and universities – needs attention. The current budget required give-backs from universities that some say will put the UW system in a double digit structural deficit for the next budget. Underfunding of public schools and delayed payments to schools and local government started years ago and continued by this governor add to budget problems for the next Legislature. A growing prison population and a deficit in the state’s Medicaid program – caused by lower federal reimbursement – adds more cost to the next budget.

Then there is the matter of the state’s rising debt. Governors including Governor Walker made decisions that resulted in unpaid debt bills being rolled into a larger and larger debt payment.

Finally there is the matter of paying taxpayers on time for the tax breaks already given: it’s been almost 5 years since the state changed the withholding tables. So even though state income taxes have gone down – by a very modest amount – taxpayers don’t see any difference in their take home pay. To fix the problem completely would take more than the entire estimated increase in new revenue.

So - to the Governor and my fellow lawmakers – let’s first pay the bills.

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