In an exclusive interview with The Wheeler Report (reprinted here with permission), Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), Chair of the Assembly Committee on Education, discusses his approach to chairing the committee as well as vouchers, referenda, the role of the federal government, the future of education and more:
When asked about the accomplishments and challenges of being the Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, Rep. Thiesfeldt said:
As Education Chair I don’t see my biggest role to be bringing forth all kinds of policy and initiatives. Certainly I have done some of that, but I see myself as someone who looks to give the members of my committee the opportunity to bring forth things they think are important for Wisconsin. When looking at my own successes I like to look at things that were put into the budget. Numerous budget provisions were initiatives either pushed by myself or other individuals to make schools better in Wisconsin. I like to look at the committee as a whole. I see being the Chair as a gatekeeper. You let things through that you think are good ideas or merit a public discussion; then you block things you think are bad public policy.
I try to visit as many schools as I can. I try to respond to any superintendent that contacts me. I try go to national conferences to see what is going on in other states, and even in other countries. It is beneficial to have bipartisan participation on the committee. I make a point of trying to find Democratic bills that I think are able to get through committee. It’s not a bad idea just because it’s a Democratic bill. No different, it’s not always a great idea just because it’s Republican bill. I try to take part in as many special committees as I can. I chaired the committee that examined Common Core, I was on a study committee last year on SAGE, and I was on the Speaker’s Task Force on Urban Education. I will be chairing the study committee on school data with Sen. LeMahieu.
I think you should look to enhance things that work, and look at those things that don’t seem to be working and try to fix it or get rid of it. If something is hurting education we want to get it out of the way as quickly as we can. Specifically, this year the committee created a lot of dialogue on AB-1, School Accountability. Obviously it didn’t ultimately pass into a law, but there were provisions that made their way into the budget. It spurred a lot of discussion on ‘can schools be held accountable’ realistically. When you have all these different kinds of schools in Wisconsin: mainstream public schools, or charter schools, choice schools, virtual schools, can you have an accountability system that encompasses all of them? No one else had tried that in the country that I am aware of. It is a big step. We all learned some things from it. We learned the complexity of doing something like that.
Towards the end of session, we had a lot of discussion on school referendums. I think that discussion is going to continue. It’s a fruitful discussion to have because I was reading something that said 80% of referendums passed in the last year. That is way above what it was previously.
When asked if too many schools are using referendums, Thiesfeldt said:
I think what it means is that because of the revenue limits that have been established, there was an exemption to the revenue limits created for referendums and that is what schools have been using when they find themselves short. I think what (the recent referendum successes) points to mostly is the effectiveness that they have had in convincing the public that if they don’t get the funds they will have to make cuts. I think that schools have been more effective in sharing that message with the public.
Every referendum has a different story behind it, but most of them are being sold that ‘if we don’t do this we don’t know how we’re going to come up with the money.’ The message is that the money coming from the State is inadequate. I think the perception in the state, which isn’t true, is that education has been cut. Act 10 did not take money out of the classroom, it took money out of the teacher’s pockets. Whether you think that is a positive or a negative, it did not impact teaching in the classroom. In fact, the amount of money spent on education directed towards the classroom has gone up in Wisconsin, including in this last budget. So that narrative is false. That narrative is sometimes used to sell the referendums to the public.
Have they truly examined everything in their budget? Instead of just rolling over their budget from one year to the next, examine every dollar that is being spent. The referendum question will come up again. I think our referendums in Wisconsin are pretty free-wheeling right now. I think there could be more guidance from the state on when is an appropriate time to hold a referendum. I don’t think it is wise for them to be held during primaries. I think it’s important for the authors of that bill to listen to both sides and find a common ground.
When asked to highlight some of the challenges he has faced as the Chair of the Education Committee, Thiesfeldt said:
Funding is always a challenge, that is not new. When we had the economic issues that came up nationwide and hit Wisconsin hard because of our manufacturing base, the revenues coming into the state decreased. There had to be a serious examination of the budget, what were we going to do? Were we going to continue the same amount of money we had before?
Going back to the Doyle days they didn’t give the schools the tools to deal with the lack of revenue that was coming from the State. The change in Act 10 was to give those tools to the schools. I think you’ll find that schools will say those were positive changes; some begrudgingly so. I don’t think that is something we are going to be going back on in Wisconsin.
Funding continues to be a challenge. The truth of the matter is, in government in general, not just education, funding should always be a challenge. You are taking money forcibly from the citizens using taxing power and putting it into programs that will help the general public. Any time you are going to be forcing people to give money to you, you should be making sure that money is well spent. You should not be taking any more than what is absolutely necessary.
Thiesfeldt highlighted his concerns on the role of the federal government in education by saying:
There needs to be a bigger recognition of the overreach of the federal government into education. That became even more evident in the last couple of weeks. They put out an advisory letter on how school districts are going to be expected to act in regard to bathrooms, changing rooms, locker rooms, sports teams, etc. The list went on and on for students who struggle with transgender issues.
I have always contended that long ago the federal government overreached in its role in education. I have never found anyone who reads the Constitution where it talks about education because it doesn’t. What has developed over the years is there is guidance offered by the federal Department of Education which is leveraged with money. It’s the same thing with this advisory letter. There was a threat in there that schools could lose their money if they don’t comply with the facets that were in that letter.
This isn’t the first time, you can look back at Common Core and other initiatives that have taken place. I think you are starting to see states push back. At a national conference I attended last year both Republicans and Democrats alike were uncomfortable with the overreach of the federal government. The states are more than capable of dealing with education. What has happened is social engineering is coming down from the federal government.
When asked about the future of K-12 education Thiesfeldt said:
A strength of education in our nation is that everyone is trying different things and states can copy what others are doing well and implement it themselves. I would like to see that is emphasized as a positive. I think it is a positive that Congress has taken a step to update No Child Left Behind. This is one of those rare instances where the federal government stepped back. It only happened because there was a push back to the Common Core Standards.
Education has become a data-driven enterprise. Schools are trying to figure out ways to get data that can help teaching. That brings up other concerns about data privacy. That’s what this study committee will look at this summer–what are appropriate data to be collected from students and how can you use it to effectively teach students. Also, you want there to be a rapid turnaround. You want to collect the data and be able to use it right away. That brings us to the test that is taken at the end of the school year. That data is collected now and schools don’t get to do anything with that data until the next school year.
Thiesfeldt was asked to discuss the “Sage on the Stage vs. the Guide on the Side”. He said:
As much as possible you want your students to think for themselves. As our job market has become more diversified there is a different need. We need to find a way to individualize education for students. It is very difficult to individualize education standing in front of a class of 35 students. As schools work to individualize education the teacher becomes the “guide on the side.”
Any information that a student is actively learning is going to be retained more than someone standing in front of them giving them information. With the age of the internet, fact-based learning is being de-emphasized. We used to memorize information, now they have access to that information quickly. Not everyone has bought into that. I have a level of discomfort with the lack of detailed instruction that is coming to the students these days. There needs to be a balance.
Teachers working as a ‘guide on the side’ will tell you that the most important thing they can give the students is the ability to find the information they need and how to use it. They are teaching kids how to critically think. It’s kind of like ‘Google learning.’ The impact of this stretches backward to our educational institutions; the colleges, too.
We are a society that expects quick results. This is a fundamental change in education. If we’re going to be data driven, it will take years to see if any of these changes are having an impact in a positive way. This is going to be an on-going discussion for a while.
Thiesfeldt was asked about the future of vouchers in Wisconsin and he said:
They are not going to go away. One of the things I have tried to do as Chair of Education is to bring some peace. It doesn’t do the kids a bit of good for all these education entities to be squabbling over a piece of the pie. Vouchers are here and they are not going away.
There is more acceptance in the public of that, and more acceptance in the public school arena as well. The truth is that those alternative methods of teaching (we previously discussed) can be provided by charters and vouchers.
Thiesfeldt was asked to discuss the future of funding of education in Wisconsin. Thiesfeldt said:
I like to call vouchers scholarships. That Choice program is not going to go away. There is a demand for that type of education state wide. There has been a call for the past several years to change the school funding in Wisconsin. While there are certainly suggestions on how that (funding formula) could be better, experts will tell you that Wisconsin’s formula is fair.
There are other states that have gone with Education Savings Accounts. Superintendent Evers likes to say that Republicans are going to push until there is a voucher in every backpack. I like to call that a scholarship in every backpack. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The United States is behind other countries (in using vouchers). Other countries have been doing this for years. For over 100 years in the Netherlands parents are given an allotted amount of money for each child to spend on that child’s education. They go to whatever school they choose for that child.
I think if Wisconsin could go back in time and start over in its choice program I suspect there would be strong consideration given to going to Education Savings Account and letting the parents make the choice of which school their child attend.
Any change in the funding formula creates winners and losers. (If we change the formula) you can’t satisfy every want of superintendents out there. It’s one of those ‘be careful what you ask for’ scenarios because a change could mean you are one of the districts who will get less.
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