Lawmakers who have power over nearly half of public education funds suggest “opening your doors” to all students.
A still unknown number of school superintendents across Wisconsin are receiving a letter from top Assembly Republicans –the people who control the purse strings to state education funds – strongly urging them to consider reopening their schools rather than opting for virtual learning this fall, according to a copy of the letter obtained by UpNorthNews.
The letter is being criticized as a power grab and a potential risk to educators’ and students’ health.
Dated July 29, the letter is signed by 47 of the Assembly’s 63 Republican members, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester; Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna; and Assistant Majority Leader Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma.
In it they say the state is “minimally obligated” to provide a sound education to state students and ask the superintendents “to consider opening your doors this fall to provide every student with an in-class experience.”
“We understand that as part of your local decision-making process, some of you are considering virtual education as part of your strategy. There is nearly universal agreement among educators that most students are taught more effectively in a classroom,” read the letter. “In a virtual setting, it is often impossible to provide adequate oversight of student engagement and to give additional assistance to those who are struggling.”
Messages left with Vos, Steineke, and Felzkowski were not immediately returned Tuesday.
It is unclear how many superintendents received the letter. Several contacted by UpNorthNews had heard of the letter but not personally received one, while others had.
“I can confirm that it was sent to multiple superintendents at their offices,” said Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. “I can’t confirm that it will get to all (still received today by one report). “So multiple is the best I can confirm at this point.”
The letter also informs the superintendents that Republicans have asked the Department of Public Instruction to promulgate a rule allowing broader access to the open enrollment process when the “student’s best interest is at stake.”
“As an educator, you understand each student learns in a unique way and we ask you to consider a parents’ request to place their child in the best environment for their needs,” states the letter.
The open enrollment process and a state-supported voucher program that includes private and religious schools have been a significant drain on local public schools. DPI statistics for 2019-2020 indicated public schools would lose out on $145.3 million that went to vouchers for students to attend other schools.
Under current law, school districts must inform the state each January how many spaces they have for open enrollment. That means districts have already submitted their numbers for the upcoming school year, unless the rule is changed.
Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Mount Horeb, said she was not aware the letter had been sent to state superintendents. After reading a copy, she said it was pathetic.
“It is a transparent power grab by Robin Vos and the Republicans,” said Pope, who also serves on the Assembly Education Committee. “They are risking the health of staff and students in order to pretend the pandemic is taken care of in the same vein as Donald Trump.”
The letter also “strongly encourages” schools that implement virtual learning to have teachers physically present in their classrooms. The Republicans suggest teachers should take steps such as scheduled live courses that would allow teachers to take attendance while giving parents the opportunity to provide a successful learning environment.
“Teachers would be able to utilize all of their classroom resources while providing students with open, direct and live communication at acceptable social distance,” said the letter.
The letter comes as Assembly Republicans have publicly been claiming Gov. Tony Evers intends to pass a mandate for all state schools to begin classes virtually this fall.
During a call with reporters Tuesday, Evers said he was comfortable with allowing local school districts to decide for themselves whether to start the school year virtually or in-person.
“I have no secret plan,” Evers said. “I am very proud of the work that all districts are doing.”
Pope said she finds it interesting that the party of local control “has decided to stick their nose into this issue.”
“For the Legislature to bring its anti-science ideology into the debate and interfere in this way is abhorrent,” Pope said.