Lawmakers in recent years have passed a “drumbeat” of education legislation that “is deafening and deflating” to teachers in public school classrooms, state schools superintendent Tony Evers said Thursday in his annual address on the state of education in Wisconsin.
In the address, Evers also criticized a bill that would make his position a gubernatorial appointment.
“The impact of the ongoing assault on public education happening in this state and frankly across the nation, it may make for great political theater, but it’s making it more and more difficult for our teachers to stay the course,” Evers said to a packed Capitol rotunda. “Grit, perseverance and resilience can only go so far when our educators’ work is challenged regularly.”
Evers said he supports the right of lawmakers to pass laws, but “when policy conflicts with the needs of our kids, it eventually floods into the classroom.”
Evers also pushed hard against a proposal from Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, to turn the superintendent’s job into a political appointment rather than an elected position.
Sanfelippo said the move would make the Department of Public Instruction, which Evers oversees, more accountable for improving student academic achievement.
Evers said state founders enshrined the powers of a state schools superintendent in the constitution, creating “a strong system” of public schools.
“Taking that vote away from parents and other folks at the local level is a sad attack at the heart of our democracy and our state’s history,” he said. “I’m going to ask a question that I know all of you know the answer to: Haven’t our strong public schools had enough upheaval and change?”
Evers also laid out improvements since the 2009-10 school year, including an increasing graduation rate, fewer students dropping out of high schools, fewer students being suspended or expelled and a dropping truancy rate.
Sanfelippo said Thursday the state’s education “statistics don’t match the rhetoric” from Evers that schools are improving overall — pointing to DPI data that show reading proficiency among the state’s students has increased 2 percentage points since 2005.
The Republican lawmaker also pointed to the massive gaps in academic achievement between white and black students in Madison School District and low reading proficiency rates in Milwaukee schools.
Evers told reporters after his speech the recent 2015-17 budget provision that requires high school students to pass a civics test to graduate is an example of the “assault” public schools are enduring.
“That specific one says, ‘So, we don’t trust you teaching civics in your classroom.’ Well that’s, frankly, baloney,” Evers said.
In this spring’s budget cycle, Republican lawmakers passed a number of changes for public schools, including easing rules to obtain a teaching license in the field of technical education and revamping the way schools in Wisconsin are measured.
Evers pointed to statistics showing enrollment in teacher-training programs has decreased each year since 2011, resulting in 2,000 fewer students preparing to become teachers in 2014 than in 2011. He also said there are 12 percent fewer teachers getting a license to be in a classroom in the last two years.
The budget also significantly expands the number of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers in the state, and kept school funding mostly flat. Evers said funding for public schools isn’t adequate.
Evers, who is backed by Democrats and public school advocates, has proposed overhauling the state’s school funding system in three budgets, a plan that would also provide millions more for public schools. The proposal has been ignored by the Legislature’s conservative majority each time.
Sanfelippo said while “DPI has been quick to blame the state Legislature for its continued shortcomings – citing a lack of funding – the money distributed to each student in public schools has been increasing over the years.”
Assembly Education Committee chairman Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, said Evers’ use of “inflammatory rhetoric” isn’t helpful. Thiesfeldt has opposed the Common Core State Standards, which Evers supports, and supports school vouchers, expansion of which Evers has opposed.
“He’s correct — there is a lot of change. But that’s not something that’s just happening in Wisconsin — it’s happening nationwide,” Thiesfeldt said. “There seems to be this line out there that Wisconsin is alone in teacher shortages ... or fewer people going into teacher education. We’re not immune and that’s because education is under a microscope nationwide and that’s a good thing.”
Evers said “the teacher’s voice” is missing from the public discussion of education policy, and called on Gov. Scott Walker and lawmakers to seek teachers’ opinions before pursuing future education legislation.
Walker said in a statement Thursday that he has “transformed education” since taking office in 2011 and that the state of education is “bright” in Wisconsin.