Governor Scott Walker is looking at how other states are creating plans to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and says Wisconsin’s plan needs improvement before he’ll sign it.

Describing state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers’ plan as, “a bureaucratic proposal,” Walker told the state superintendent in a letter on Wednesday to be bolder in taking on the special interests controlling public education.

“For example, under the law, a ‘rigorous intervention’ is required for low-performing schools,” Walker said. “In your plan, schools may simply implement an improvement plan created under the supervision of the Department of Public Instruction. I hope you will agree that adding layers of bureaucratic paperwork does little to help low-performing schools.”

ESSA is the federal replacement for the No Child Left Behind law. Under ESSA, states submit plans to the federal government for how they will tackle low-performing schools in order to receive federal funding for education. Unlike No Child Left Behind, ESSA gives the states the power to create their own plans to comply with the law. As a result, some states have been quite aggressive in the plans they’re submitting to the federal government.

The process for creating the ESSA plan for Wisconsin has been under the control of Evers despite concerns by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) and some members of the legislature. Evers did create an Equity in ESSA Stakeholders Council to discuss the creation of the plan, but the role of the Council was purely advisory without any authority.

The debate over ESSA has an additional political context. Evers declared in August as a Democratic candidate for governor hoping to challenge Walker in the 2018 election. Republicans have already started attacking Evers over his perceived failures as the state superintendent of schools.

In the letter, Walker said that he would like Evers to submit a new, bolder plan more like the plans being submitted by states with more aggressive reforms. Until his concerns are met, he is withholding his signature from the draft ESSA plan.

“On other issues, such as welfare and parental choice in education, our state is recognized as a national leader,” Walker said. “It is because we took action in the face of government special interests. We urge you to take this opportunity to make Wisconsin a reform leader yet again and resubmit a new proposal that allows our schools to innovate and students to succeed.”

Walker’s letter to Evers was praised by WILL’s Vice President for Policy CJ Szafir. “Governor Walker’s letter criticizing Superintendent Evers’ weak ESSA state plan lends an important voice to the growing number of Wisconsinites who are concerned and disappointed over the draft state plan,” Szafir said in a statement released Wednesday.

“With more than 50,000 Wisconsin students attending failing schools, settling for more of the same is simply unacceptable,” Szafir said. “Unfortunately that is exactly what Superintendent Evers is proposing for the direction of K-12 education policy in Wisconsin.”

According to Wisconsin’s education report cards for school districts, forty-two schools in Milwaukee serving 24,447 students were ranked as “fails to meet expectations” in 2016 by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Statewide, 99 schools serving 53,044 students “failed to meet expectations.” Another 243 schools with 112,675 students were rated as “meeting few expectations.”

Despite Walker’s criticism, Evers and DPI are standing behind the ESSA plan.

“We are confident that the robust stakeholder process we used to develop our ESSA plan, which included the governor’s office, gave us a roadmap for success that respects the unique needs of Wisconsin’s communities,” said DPI Communications Director Thomas McCarthy in an email Wednesday. “The final plan will be made public this Monday upon submission to [the U.S. Department of Education] and we look forward to discussing how it will support our students.”

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