The Democrats vs. the Department of Public Instruction

You read that right.

June 22, 2017

By Ola Lisowski
MacIver Institute Research Associate

On Wednesday, the Assembly passed a long, technical bill making changes to Wisconsin’s school choice programs. If signed into law, choice schools will be required to – for the first time – conduct background checks on employees. The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is supportive of the bill and twice testified in favor of it.

And yet, 30 Democrats in the Assembly and five Democrats in the Senate voted against the legislation. Why? Because choice schools like it.

The bill creates a more clear pathway for the Department of Public Instruction to kick schools out of the private choice programs if they commit fraud, fail to provide required financial information, or if they fail to conduct the required background checks. DPI asked for this provision in its budget request.

The legislation also revises the funding formula for the Special Needs Scholarship Program, sending more money to public schools, another idea asked for by DPI.

The required background checks? You guessed it – included in DPI’s budget request. Many of the bill’s provisions were originally requested by DPI but tossed by the Joint Finance Committee as non-fiscal policy items.

At the public hearings and executive sessions in both the Senate and Assembly committees, several Democrats spoke against the bill, asking why it moved so fast and why traditional public schools don’t get that kind of treatment.

Never mind the fact that the Assembly Committee on Education has worked for months cleaning up various program rules for public schools, that those rule changes passed the bipartisan committee unanimously and were also passed by the full Assembly this week.

Never mind that representatives of DPI sat directly in front of each committee, on the testimony stand, explaining why the department asked for the changes.

Never mind that if you eliminate a rule that was a never-before-used, worthless test of “accountability” to begin with, it’s still described by some as removing accountability standards.

It’s too close to those pesky choice programs, so even if it saves our otherwise beloved department time or money, it’s best to take the high road. Or something.

A few legislative sessions and many moons ago, Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee introduced amendment after amendment on the 2013-15 state budget, including one that would require background checks for prospective choice school employees. In a letter to supporters, Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) called those amendments “common sense” motions that would “increase accountability and transparency.”

The very same senator even introduced a standalone bill on the issue. Yet a few years later, given the opportunity to bring the requirement into law, he and four other senators voted against the very same idea. How times change.