Will Lawmakers Trust the DPI, or Parents?

By Peder Berg

If lawmakers truly want to improve Wisconsin's schools, they will abandon plans to inject the heavy hand of the state via an accountability scheme and instead unleash the oft-ignored power of Wisconsin's parents.

Every family, no matter what their home looks like or where it is, deserves to have multiple schooling options and objective, meaningful information to inform their choice.

It is time for lawmakers to publicly recognize that Wisconsin kids do not belong to any school district or any system. They are not dollars on a budget sheet or merely vessels for state aid. It is time to firmly reject the "Madison Knows Best" approach toward improving our schools.

So, here's this parent's thoughts for a low-cost, free-market, pro-parent, small-government school accountability plan.

  1. To truly see how well a school performs, a school grading system for those which receive public funds must put the most emphasis on individual student growth, not the average of snapshot test scores of a school's entire student body. Give extra credit for schools that catch-up learning lags and retain students.
  2. The report cards should waive the test scores of first-year transfers as to not penalize the new school for possible failures of the old one.
  3. Make D and F schools mail their report cards to parents, who must sign to acknowledge receipt. These mailings should be standardized and free of any explanatory spin from the school.
  4. Eliminate the "Home District" and Department of Public Instruction veto power over public school open enrollment transfers
  5. Empower parents with information regarding test scores, graduation rates, retention, school safety, etc. Give parents  the accountability 'stick' that makes funding decisions (via enrollment). Do not create a new board or give DPI new authority
  6. Phase in state-wide private school choice over the next three years
  7. Instead of new mandates on schools and teachers, mandate that the DPI must inform all parents of all the options available to them. Turn DPI into an agency that serves parents, not 'the system'

Will this parent-centered accountability plan solve all the problems in our schools? No. But diminishing the DPI's power and instead trusting parents will go a long way toward making our schools better. Let's get real.  Parents are the first to know that a school isn't working and must be empowered to take action in their child's best interest. If lawmakers want to improve schools, they need to empower parents. Period.

Lawmakers need to quit giving deference to the school administrators no matter how well-meaning they are. The administrators' allegiance is too often rooted in the system, the status quo.

If we approach accountability the right way, school boards and, administrators will feel the heat, do a better job, raise teacher expectations, and earn students. Not because they fear the heavy hand of the nanny state, but because they will see the families in their community as customers and potential customers.

Bold, smart and compassionate lawmakers are not afraid to put the parents in the drivers seat. And our state's children will be the prime beneficiaries.

In his State of the State speech, Governor Walker said:

"I call on the members of the state Legislature to pass legislation ensuring objective information is available for each and every school receiving public funds in this state. Provide the information and allow parents to make the choice.

"No need for bureaucrats or politicians to make that choice—I trust parents. Give them access to objective information and they will make the choice that is best for their children."

Will lawmakers rise up to that challenge?

It is time to recognize that lawmakers or administrators do not care more about students than their own parents do.  

Will lawmakers seize this opportunity to be bold? Will they actually embrace the small government and pro-free market principles they talk about during campaign season?

Will they say #itrustparents?

If not now, when?

Berg is the President of the non-profit Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, an organization of public school parents, teachers, students and alumni who have advocated for education reform in Wisconsin for the last decade.