By CJ Szafir and Libby Sobic

Presidential candidate — and 2020 Democrat frontrunner — U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren released her vision for K-12 education in America this week. While the document contains plenty of hyperbolic language (combating the “corruption” associated with charter schools), Warren, who likes to say “she has a plan for that”, does offer policy details on what she would do as president. At a minimum, it shows what her priorities will be.

In short, her plan calls for massive spending increases to the tune of $800 million over ten years (funded by her wealth tax), more federal intrusion into the classroom, an all-out assault on school choice, and overturning collective bargaining reform laws.

We breakdown what it could mean for Wisconsin:

Overturning Walker’s Act 10 collective bargaining reform law

Warren pledges to “make it easier for teachers to join a union, bargain collectively or strike” and work to pass legislation that would “ensure that public employees like teachers can organize and bargain collectively in each state and authorize voluntary deduction of fees to support a union.” In other words, she wants the federal government to overturn collective bargaining reform laws — like Governor Walker’s 2011 Act 10 law that limits collective bargaining for public employee unions.

This would be a major set-back to Wisconsin students, teachers, and school district administrators. A reminder:

  • Under Act 10, school districts have been able to curtail costs, realizing $3 billion in savings.
  • Act 10 has given teachers new freedom, creating a marketplace for education and allowing school districts to reward teachers for merit pay. Crazy union policies like “last hire, first fire” are becoming a relic of the past.
  • All of this has been a benefit for students, leading to higher math test scores, without negatively impacting the teaching workforce (a 2016 study found no difference between Wisconsin’s student-teacher ratios and gross teacher salaries and those in neighboring states).

An all-out assault on Milwaukee’s public charter schools

As we pointed out in The Hill last spring, the 2020 Democrat field is lurching to the far left in its opposition to school choice (far surpassing the rhetoric used by Obama). But Warren’s plan goes the furthest detailing ways that she would use the Executive Branch to, presumably, unilaterally stop the growth of many of Wisconsin’s public charter schools.

1. Ban on for-profit charters and increased red-tape on independent charters

In Milwaukee, there are more than 43,000 students attending charter schools, which are public schools with significantly less red tape, no unions, and more innovation than traditional public schools. Ms. Warren focuses her ire at independent public charter schools, which, in Wisconsin, are authorized by government entities other than the school district, such as the City of Milwaukee, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison System, etc.

This means that in Milwaukee, she is taking aim at some of the top performing schools in the city. Independent charters, which cannot have admissions policies unlike MPS, outperform their peers at Milwaukee Public Schools by 8.2% in math.

Warren calls on only allowing “school districts to serve as charter authorizers” and a “ban for-profit charter schools”. This could target independent charter schools like Milwaukee Scholars, a high performing elementary public charter school authorized by University of Wisconsin –Milwaukee that serves more than 90% minority and economically disadvantaged students. Veritas high school, a high-performing independent charter school was a top value added school. This means that the students are performing better academically than expected.

For the charters that would exist, she calls on more “accountability” for charter schools. To do this, she will use her administration to “crack down on union-busting” by the charter schools and “require boards to be made up of parents and member of the public”, presumably over-ruling state law in this regard.

2. End federal grants to encourage the growth of charter schools

Warren would end the federal grant program to promote charter schools, which would harm Wisconsin’s schools. In 2017, Wisconsin received a competitive federal grant for the planning and implementation of new charter schools. The federal grant money has been awarded to charter schools across the state and embraces the flexibility and innovation of the charter model. For example, Gilman School District, a rural school district in northwestern Wisconsin, received a grant for planning and implementing a virtual charter school.

The proposal to end federal grants for charter schools would make it more difficult for school districts and other charter authorizers to respond to parent’s demand for more high quality options and expand charter schools across Wisconsin.

3. Direct the IRS to investigate so-called nonprofit schools that are violating the statutory requirements for nonprofits”

In a particularly uncomfortable recommendation, Warren has said plainly she would direct her IRS to investigate charter schools to determine whether they are violating any federal laws. What exactly that means is unclear. But there’s no question she is saying that she would unleash the IRS to go after under-funded public charter schools in Milwaukee who educate predominately low-income students.

There would, sadly, be some precedent to this (i.e Lerner, Lois).

Significantly more federal intrusion in the classroom

If elected president, Ms. Warren would wield her executive power authority to direct the federal government’s involvement into nearly every classroom in the country resulting in more mandates on Wisconsin’s public schools.

1. Ending zero-tolerance discipline policies

The Obama administration pushed for a reform of school discipline policies in 2016 through a Dear Colleague letter that threatened public school districts with legal penalties in order to require a change in discipline policies. In particular, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began sending letters to school districts across the country demanding compliance reviews of the school’s data and discipline policies. A 2017 WILL study of the Obama administration’s push for positive reinforcement in school discipline found that student suspension rates were down about 40% but concerns about safety and climate were on the rise. In a follow-up study, WILL found that the Obama-era suspension policies imposed on Wisconsin schools resulted in a negative impact on academic performance.

Thankfully, Secretary DeVos rescinded the Dear Colleague after a national coalition, led by WILL, pushed for its repeal. But Ms. Warren’s proposal would take Wisconsin schools back in time and result in more federal mandates on school discipline that fail to make our schools safer.

2. Eliminating high stakes testing

In a bizarre proposal, she would “prohibit the use of standardized testing” as a significant factor when school districts are making decisions relating to a school, firing a teacher and “high stakes decisions.” While standardized test scores should not be the only factor considered when looking a success of a school, teacher or student, there must be some indicator for academic success. In fact, federal law already allows states to determine who best to capture academic standards and what success should like for their students.

Nonetheless, the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of dictating academic curriculum.

3. “Restore and expand the Office of Civil Rights in the US Department of Education authority to look for discrimination in school policies and procedures.”

Ms. Warren would “give Office of Civil Rights clear marching orders to root out discrimination wherever it is found.” This type of mandate is highly concerning and could result in fishing expedition to prove discrimination. Wisconsin was the focus of the Obama Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights misguided and ultimately unsuccessful investigation into the state’s parental choice program in Milwaukee.

In 2011, the Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation into the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program claiming that the program violated federal disability laws. The claims were based on unprecedented arguments that private schools accepting a student on a state-funded vouchers should be treated as public schools under federal law. The DOJ went as far as claiming that they would sue the state unless the law was changed! The investigation dragged on for four years until it was closed with no findings of wrongdoing.

Quadruple federal funding — but there’s a catch. Wisconsin may have to change its funding system.

Ms. Warren’s plan is based on the belief that K-12 education inadequate, from both the federal and state governments. To remedy this, she would quadruple the amount of federal funding in Title I to “ensure that all children get a high-quality public education.” But this extra money comes with a catch — states must adopt progressive funding formulas to allocate K-12 funding.

There are two major issues with her proposal. First, the federal Title I funds are designed to aid students who are low performing and need academic support regardless of the type of school they attend. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act allows the funding to follow the child to public, private or public charter schools to receive academic support services. This is good policy because we should be invested in our students’ success no matter what type of school they attend.

Second, the concept of progressive funding formulas is not a silver bullet to help students achieve academic success. Wisconsin is an example of progressive funding — the majority of state funding is already allocated based on the district’s total property value per total student enrollment. This means that “property- wealthier” districts receive less state funding than “property-poor” districts. It is unclear whether Wisconsin’s current funding system does enough under Warren’s plan. Instead her plan would hold states hostage — effectively demanding a change in how state’s allocate their funding in order to receive federal funds.

Furthermore, her plan may not even work because more money is not going to guarantee more high quality schools for students. WILL’s report on Wisconsin’s historic increases in K-12 funding over the last several state budgets found that more spending by the high-spending districts did not result in better results on state exams and the ACT relative to low-spending districts.

Millions of families across the nation — including nearly 100,000 in Wisconsin — make the choice to customize their child’s education to best fit their needs by opting out of their assigned public school. Even more support their right to do so. Recent polling shows majorities of Wisconsinites support charter schools — including more than 40% of Democrats. Ms. Warren’s plan amounts to nothing short of an ideological declaration of war on school choice. Unfortunately, the futures of millions of American children might just hang in the balance.

CJ Szafir is the Executive Vice President of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Libby Sobic is the Director & Legal Counsel of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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