A Waukesha County judge has ruled the state agency in charge of education violated state law for treating public and private choice schools differently when it comes to making up class time for snow days.

On Tuesday, Judge Michael Bohren ruled in favor of a lawsuit by School Choice Wisconsin (SCW) which said the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) discriminated against private schools in the state’s school choice programs when the department refused to allow them to use virtual education to make up for lost class time. DPI did allow public schools to use online schooling to make up the difference, but expressly forbade choice schools from doing so last February.

“There is not a legitimate government interest in denying Choice Schools the opportunity to use ‘virtual learning’ as Public schools do,” Bohren said. “The denial is harmful to the Choice Schools and its students.”

Terry Brown, the Chairman of School Choice Wisconsin Action, praised Bohren’s decision calling it a blow for accountability.

“State statutes are created and changed by elected officials accountable directly to the public,” Brown said. “State agencies run by unelected bureaucrats are not allowed to modify or interpret those laws without legislative oversight.”

The decision was also praised by Libby Sobic, Director of Education Policy for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty which represented SCW in this lawsuit.

“Today, the Waukesha Circuit Court ruled that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction broke the law when it denied private schools in the choice program the opportunity to fully utilize online learning as part of classroom instruction,” Sobic said. “For too long, DPI has been unfair in their treatment of private schools in Wisconsin’s choice programs and today’s decision affirms that when they break the law, they will be held accountable.”

The ruling against DPI comes at a time when legislators are expressing an interest in taking a closer look at the state agency’s operations. Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, and Rep.Jeremy (R-Fond du Lac), Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, announced on Tuesday their desire for an audit of DPI.

“Representing nearly one-fifth of the entire state budget, the Department of Public Instruction budget has increased by nearly $3 billion since 2012,” said Nygren. “Despite providing more resources than ever for public schools, student achievement in reading, unfortunately, continues to decline.”

“Wisconsin’s overall test scores are headed in the wrong direction. Especially concerning is the downward trend in reading scores, the core of education attainment,” said Thiesfeldt. “Recent Forward Exam results show that 60% of Wisconsin students cannot read or write at grade level. Taxpayers and students deserve better.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor, the person in charge of the Department of Public Instruction, announced this week that she will not be seeking election to another term in 2021. She was appointed by Governor Tony Evers after his election in 2018.

Evers served as Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2009 to 2018.

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