Wisconsin prepares education plan under lawsuit threat

MADISON — The Wisconsin education department is about to release a far-reaching school performance plan under increasing scrutiny from the Republican-controlled Legislature and threat of a lawsuit over how the plan is being created.

The first draft of the plan, which is required under federal law and affects every public school student in the state, is to be released next week. It was written by the Department of Public Instruction following months of gathering comments from the public, policy makers and education leaders.

The education department isn't releasing details of what's in the plan until the draft is made public.

Every state must complete a plan by Sept. 18 to be in compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act — the 2015 law going into effect this fall that replaces No Child Left Behind. The plan will set Wisconsin K-12 education policy for years and cover such things as how to measure the performance of schools, students and teachers and what to do about those not meeting the standards.

Because the stakes are so high, the education department is under intense scrutiny, especially from conservative supporters of school choice programs and those who have previously challenged the authority of Wisconsin's elected state superintendent.

Tony Evers, who as state superintendent oversees the education department that wrote the plan, is highly critical of choice schools. Evers has been backed by Democrats and public school teachers unions and was just easily re-elected to a third term in the officially nonpartisan position.

Evers and leaders from his department have been keeping Republicans in the Legislature updated on the plan's progress and trying to calm their fears. Two Republican lawmakers, along with a couple Democrats, a representative of Gov. Scott Walker's office and education leaders from around the state, are also part of an advisory group that's been offering suggestions.

But the final say on what's in, or out, of the plan rests with Evers and the education department. And that makes some Republicans nervous.

"The cake is baked," Republican Rep. John Jagler, a member of the Assembly Education Committee, said during a Thursday hearing on the issue. "They can ask our opinion, they can give us as many updates on the process as they want."

Evers defended the approach.

"From the start, we have developed and followed a plan for implementing ESSA that puts kids first and advances equity for all schools — regardless of how they are organized," he said in a statement. "We have engaged a robust group of stakeholders and their diverse viewpoints have allowed us to craft a better plan. We have followed state and federal law every step of the way."

The department intends to post the first draft of the state plan online on April 28, take public comment for two months, and present the plan at public hearings before the Legislature's education committees, said Jennifer Kammerud, a Department of Public Instruction policy adviser.

The department has also provided weekly updates to the governor's office and previously briefed both of the Legislature's education committees, said DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy.

But Republican Rep. Ron Tusler said the Legislature hasn't been involved enough.

"I think it's absurd that we don't have a role," Tusler said at the Thursday hearing on his proposal requiring the department to respond to concerns of lawmakers. "We don't have a role and I think we should."

Attorneys with the conservative Milwaukee-based law firm the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and the state chamber of commerce are already threatening a lawsuit over the process used to create the plan. They sent Evers a letter in February making the threat and WILL attorney CJ Szafir repeated it at Thursday's hearing.

WILL previously challenged the authority of the state superintendent in a lawsuit that went all the way to the state Supreme Court in 2016. The court kept the superintendent's powers intact.

In response to Republican concerns about the plan, Democrats note that final approval rests with Republican President Donald Trump's administration. It's up to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to accept or reject it, with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal education money hanging in the balance.