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Policy memo accuses Evers of acting unilaterally on ESSA

By   /   January 6, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty

OVERREACH: CJ Szafir, vice president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, says Tony Evers and the Department of Public Instruction were making decisions on ESSA unilaterally instead of consulting the governor and Legislature.

A new public policy memo accuses the Wisconsin Superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction of acting unilaterally in implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The memo, written by Libby Sobic, associate counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, and CJ Szafir, the group’s vice president, criticizes Superintendent Tony Evers of acting alone on ESSA.

“ESSA requires the state plan to be created with ‘meaningful consultation from the state legislature and the Governor,’” the memo states. “To date, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (‘DPI’) is making unilateral decisions on ESSA’s state plan with very little consultation with Governor Walker and the legislature.”

ESSA is the federal replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act. Unlike No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires states to create report cards for the schools and create plans for dealing with failing schools, but leaves the policy making itself to the states. In exchange for federal Title funds, states must develop a “state plan” and submit the plan to the U.S. Department of Education by Sept. 18, 2017.

Wisconsin received about $204 million in Title I-A funding alone for school year 2016-2017, according to the memo.

“The more we started to follow it, and the more we reached out to stakeholders, it became abundantly clear that Tony Evers and the Department of Public Instruction were making a lot of these policy decisions unilaterally, or they were planning on making them unilaterally,” Szafir said in an interview Thursday.”

“There is little input from Governor Walker or the state Legislature,” he said.

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, vice chair of the Joint Finance Committee, reacted to the WILL memo.

“ESSA will require changes to state law and common sense would lead me to believe Superintendent Evers would work closely with the legislature responsible for changing the laws and allocating funding,” Kooyenga said in a statement. “Education should not be a partisan issue, but the status quo defenders do not want to collaborate with legislators like myself who believe we can do more for Wisconsin students.”

In a statement Thursday, DPI Communications Director Thomas McCarthy disagreed with the accusations contained in the memo.

“The DPI has consistently briefed legislative leaders on ESSA and meets weekly with Governor Walker’s office on ESSA and other state and federal issues,” McCarthy said. “In Wisconsin, the constitutionally-elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction is ultimately responsible for submitting the ESSA plan. But Tony has put great value in reaching a wide-range of stakeholders through a thoughtful, fully-engaged process to develop our state plan.”

McCarthy said legislators and other education stakeholders are consulted through the Equity in ESSA Stakeholders Council, a group of over 30 members from different education interest groups and legislators.

“It is always unfortunate when sector politics are used in attempt to divide what has been a positive and constructive process,” McCarthy said. “But in this instance, it is particularly surprising, since WILL has been at all the ESSA Council meetings, has met several times with DPI staff over the last few months on a range of issues, and has participated in the School Choice Wisconsin regional meeting where DPI staff also presented.”

However, state Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, chair of the Committee on Education, told Watchdog on Friday that he was not aware of the ESSA Council until he read the WILL memo. “I was not even aware of this committee that was put together,” he said. “I would think that DPI would be interested in involving me in that process in some sort of way.”

Thiesfeldt said he didn’t recall ever being contacted by DPI about ESSA implementation: “The Assembly, other than [state Rep. Adam] Neylon who is on the committee, has not been consulted one bit.”

Szafir said the ESSA council meetings don’t qualify as meaningful input, but that “council has no voting power; that council doesn’t really get to set the agenda.”

“They’re just kind of there to provide their own opinions on some things. And at the end of the day, Superintendent Evers doesn’t have to follow [what’s] said at the council,” Szafir said.

He added: “These are policy decisions, and under the Wisconsin Constitution the state Legislature is the policy making branch of government,” Szafir said. “And if they want to play a bigger role in the crafting of the state plan to comply with federal law, they’re well within their right to do so.”

The WILL memo offers steps the Legislature could take to be more involved in the law’s implementation. For example, the memo recommends that the state plan first be approved by the Legislature, education committees, or Joint Finance Committee before begin submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

“It is possible the state legislature could even take it upon itself to write its own state plan or parts of it and require DPI to submit it on their behalf,” the memo states. “According to Wisconsin Supreme Court precedent, there is no question that the state legislature has authority over the Superintendent of Public Instruction for education policy.”

RELATED: Legislators to Evers: Worry more about students, less about dollars

Another concern expressed in the memo relates to the creation of an ombudsman position “to monitor and enforce the requirement that public schools provide Title services to private school students.”

“If independent from DPI, the ombudsman has potential to greatly empower children at private schools by giving them easier access to federal services from the Local Education Agency (LEA) (a public school district) that often acts as a gatekeeper for those services,” the memo said.

“This has always been a huge burden for private schools and, now there’s actually the creation of this ombudsman position that should mediate these disputes,” Szafir said. “This requires that the ombudsman position is thoughtfully created, thoughtfully selected, and quite frankly is independent from the Department of Public Instruction.”

McCarthy confirmed that the position of the ombudsman would not be within DPI and would not be under the DPI Superintendent. “Choice advocates (including Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, School Choice Wisconsin, Wisconsin Catholic Conference, Seton Schools, Choice School Association, American Federation of Children) and the State Superintendent have agreed to create an independent private school ombudsman that will work collaboratively,” McCarthy said.

As for charter schools under ESSA, McCarthy said, “Charter advocates and the State Superintendent have worked together to ensure charter school autonomy is preserved under the ESSA plan.”


James Wigderson is a Wisconsin-based reporter for Watchdog. He is also an online contributor to MacIver Institute and RightWisconsin, blogs at the Wigderson Library and Pub, and was formerly an award-winning local columnist for the Waukesha Freeman. James is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He lives in Waukesha, WI, with his wife Doreen and their children.