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Legislative Update

GOP lawmakers target public schools with “transparency/culture war” legislation

by | Jul 27, 2021 | Legislative Update Blog, National Issue, State Issue | 0 comments

A number of legislative proposals have been introduced that target public schools (including independent charter schools) with measures aimed at increasing transparency to parents and the community. It’s possible these bills could have public hearings in the near future and we wanted to make you aware of them. The WASB is concerned with the trend of these types of bills that indicate a lack of trust by lawmakers in locally-elected school board members and local control of K-12 education in general.

The following is a list of bills dealing with school referenda, budget transparency, anti-racism & anti-sexism instruction (critical race theory) and a mandate to post curricular and instructional materials online.  Along with a description of each bill is an excerpt from the bill’s co-sponsorship memo. These memos are written by the bill authors to explain the need for the legislation to their colleagues and request their support.

Senate Bill 448 – Bonding Referenda Interest Disclosure

Sen. Jacque (R-DePere); Rep. Cabral-Guevara (R-Appleton)

Under current law, whenever a municipality, county, or school district must hold a referendum seeking voter approval for issuing bonds, the referendum question must include a statement of the purpose for which bonds are to be issued and the maximum amount of the bonds to be issued.

Under this bill, the statement included with the referendum question must also provide the estimated amount of the interest accruing on the amount of the bonds, along with the interest rate. If the interest rate is a variable rate, the statement must also specify the amount of the interest accruing on the amount of the bonds calculated using the lowest rate during the term for which the rate is applicable and the amount of the interest accruing on the amount of the bonds calculated using the highest rate during the term for which the rate is applicable.

From the co-sponsorship memo: “In recent years, municipalities, counties, and school boards have increasingly utilized their ability to bring referenda to voters across the state in order to spend money on various projects. Many of these projects can have a base cost well above $100 million, which can often result in accruing millions of dollars’ worth of interest on loans.

“In circumstances such as this, interest can increase the total cost of referenda dramatically. In one instance, a referendum was brought forward by the (redacted) School District to build a new high school. The estimated base cost of the project was $114.9 million, which appeared on the ballot and was approved by the voters. However, there was an additional $55 million worth of estimated interest, bringing the total actual cost of the project to just under $170 million. Although the district was transparent about this interest cost, including it in presentations and posting it on their website, it did not appear on the ballot itself.”

Assembly Bill 378/Senate Bill 373 – School Budget Transparency

Sen. Felzkowski (R-Irma); Rep. Magnafici (R-Dresser)

Beginning in the 2023-24 school year, this bill requires DPI to make detailed information related to financial data that DPI collects from school districts and county children with disabilities education boards available on a single web page, also referred to as the financial information portal, in a format that allows the public to download, sort, search, and access the information at no cost. The bill also requires DPI to include on the financial information portal similar financial information it collects from independent charter schools, to the extent doing so is feasible without collecting any additional information from independent charter schools solely for this purpose. Under the bill, DPI must annually update any information required to be included on the financial information portal and annually conduct a public information campaign about the availability of financial information on DPI’s Internet site.

The bill also creates a school district and school financial information transparency advisory committee to advise DPI on the creation and design of the financial information portal. Under the bill, the 11 members of the advisory committee must be appointed by no later than 60 days after the bill becomes law. By no later than April 15, 2023, the advisory committee must submit its advisory report on the financial information portal to DPI. Under the bill, the advisory report must include recommendations on various topics, including 1) the categories of information that must be accessible on the financial information portal, 2) the financial data that must be accessible to the public for each required category of information, 3) whether DPI’s existing hardware, software, data collection methods, training, maintenance, communications, data security, and installation specifications for reporting information are appropriate for the financial information portal, and 4) the resources that are necessary to implement and maintain the financial information portal, as recommended by the advisory committee.

By no later than 45 days after receiving the advisory report, DPI must respond to the advisory committee on whether or not DPI will implement each recommendation in the advisory report and, if it will not implement a recommendation, why not. By the same deadline, DPI must also deliver the advisory report and its response to the advisory report to the Joint Committee on Finance, which triggers a 14-day JCF passive review process. Under the bill, if JCF does not schedule a meeting to review DPI’s response to the advisory report, DPI may implement the recommendations in accordance with its response. If JCF does schedule a meeting to review DPI’s response to the advisory report, DPI may not implement any recommendation in the report until JCF approves DPI’s plan to implement or reject each recommendation in the advisory report. The bill requires DPI to implement the recommendations, as approved by JCF, by no later than one year after it is allowed to do so under the JCF review process. However, under the bill, DPI may delay implementing a recommendation to include financial information for schools in the portal until the 2024-25 school year.

From the co-sponsorship memo: “Spending on K-12 education accounts for over a third of our state’s budget. Our school districts receive funding through a complex web of categorical aids, the school funding formula, and increasingly, through referendums. School districts are now also on the receiving end of an influx of federal COVID-19 relief dollars, with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimating that a combined $2.4 billion will be sent to school districts in Wisconsin. School districts also have a wide array of costs many people often don’t think about, such as IT, maintenance, administrative positions and overhead. It can be very difficult for a member of the public to understand where all the money is going. All of our legislative offices have received phone calls from constituents frustrated that they are giving more of their tax dollars to schools- but aren’t seeing the payoff.

“This bill aims to make it easier for the public to track exactly how their school district is spending the funding they receive. The end result of this bill is an easy-to-access school expenditure portal that the Department of Public Instruction maintains on their website. Any member of the public, journalist, parent or teacher can look up their school district and see what funding their school is receiving and where the money is going. This is information that DPI already collects from school districts, and there will be no new reporting requirements on districts.”

Assembly Bill 411/Senate Bill 411 – Anti-Racism & Anti-Sexism Instruction & Training

Sen. Jacque (R-DePere); Rep. Wichgers (R-Muskego)

This bill prohibits race or sex stereotyping in 1) instruction provided to pupils in school districts and independent charter schools; and 2) training provided to employees of school boards and independent charter schools. Under the bill, a school board or the operator of an independent charter school is prohibited from allowing a teacher to teach pupils race or sex stereotyping in any course or as part of any curriculum and is prohibited from requiring an employee to attend a training that teaches, advocates, acts upon, or promotes race or sex stereotyping. Among the concepts that are prohibited from being taught under the bill are the following: that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex and that an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex. The bill provides that the state superintendent of public instruction must withhold 10 percent of state aid distributions from a school board or operator that violates these prohibitions. The bill also provides that a parent or guardian of a student may bring a claim against a school district or operator of a charter school for violation of the prohibitions.

The bill also requires each school board to post all curricula used in schools in the school district on the school district’s Internet site and, if a school board maintains an Internet site for an individual school, on the individual school’s Internet site. If an Internet site is maintained for an independent charter school, the bill requires the authorizer of the independent charter school to ensure that all curricula used in the independent charter school are posted on the independent charter school’s Internet site. Under the bill, upon request, a school board or independent charter school operator must provide a printed copy of any curriculum that it is required to post on its Internet site, at no cost to the requester.

From the co-sponsorship memo: “It has come to our attention that a growing number of school districts are teaching material that attempts to redress the injustice of racism and sexism by employing racism and sexism, as well as promoting psychological distress in students based on these immutable characteristics. This legislation will prohibit this type of material from entering our schools. No one should have to undergo the humiliation of being told that they are inferior to someone else; we are all members of the human race.”

Senate Bill 463 – Posting Curriculum and Learning Materials Online

Sen. Stroebel (R-Saukville); Reps. Behnke (R-Oconto) and Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac)

This bill requires each school board to post on the home page of its Internet site information related to learning materials and educational activities used in pupil instruction in the school district and any procedure or policy in effect that applies to the documentation, review, or approval of such learning materials or educational activities. Under the bill, “used in pupil instruction” means that a learning material or educational activity is 1) assigned, distributed, or otherwise presented to pupils in a course for which pupils receive credit, 2) assigned, distributed, or otherwise presented to pupils if use of the learning material or participation in the educational activity is required by the school, 3) assigned, distributed, or otherwise presented to pupils and at least a majority of pupils in a grade level are expected to use the learning material or participate in the educational activity, 4) among learning materials from which pupils are required to select one or more materials, if the available selection of learning materials is restricted to specific titles, or 5) created by the school board or a teacher employed by the school board, including lesson plans, presentations, and videos. The bill requires each school board to include in its list of learning materials and educational activities 1) bibliographic information necessary to identify each listed learning material and educational activity, 2) the full text or a copy of a learning material or educational activity created by the school board or a teacher employed by the school board, and 3) a link to curricula adopted by the school board to comply with state law.

Under the bill, a school board must update the list of learning materials and educational activities at least twice each school year and must notify parents and guardians each time the list is updated. The bill specifies that one update must occur before the start of the school term and one update must occur before January 15 of the applicable school year. The bill also requires the school board to ensure that the list remains available to the public on its Internet site for at least five years.

Finally, the bill allows a school district resident to bring an action in circuit court to compel a school board to comply with the requirements created in this bill. Under the bill, the court must award reasonable attorney’s fees, up to $15,000, to the school district resident if he or she prevails in the action.

From the co-sponsorship memo: “Classrooms are the new front line of the culture war, and parents deserve to know what their children are being taught. Learning about controversial philosophies in the classroom is different than implementing controversial philosophies in the classroom. With the rise of “Critical Race Theory” and its premise that the American story is one of oppression – instead of a never-ending effort to more perfectly realize the ideals of our founding – curriculum transparency is key. Wisconsin law emphasizes and protects local input in K-12 decisions. In keeping with this approach, LRB-3687 enhances public school transparency and provides local parents and taxpayers the information and data they need to facilitate local policy debates.”

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Late additions receive hearing this week…