The steady expansion of programs that siphon public money into private schools is seen by public school advocates as an existential threat to public school districts around Wisconsin. But a bill that grows the statewide private school voucher program passed out of the Assembly Education Committee on Thursday without discussion or debate.
The bill, AB 59, raises the income cap for families who enroll in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program to 300% of poverty. (After enrolling, they can keep their vouchers regardless of future income changes).
The bill also lifts the application cap for open enrollment for students applying this school year or next school year, and requires school districts to allow any student living in the district to enroll elsewhere under a special alternative application process. School districts whose students leave are projected to lose $8,946 in general aid per student. Among the bill’s opponents are the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, the Wisconsin Rural School Alliance, Wisconsin Association of School Boards, and the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
After a quick party-line vote, with Democrats voting no and Republicans voting yes, the measure passed. The committee also quickly approved measures allowing more open enrollment options to multiple school districts and relaxing requirements for teacher licensure in bipartisan votes.
Then began a public hearing on a proposal to create “micro schools,” which pitted two factions of home-schoolers against each other, and lasted for more than two hours.
The “micro schools” bill, AB 122, would allow up to five families to band together in pods to educate their children. The idea grew out of parents’ frustration with online schooling during the pandemic, according to some proponents.
Micro schools would offer them an alternative to regular school. But, the bill’s authors hastened to add, micro schools would be different from home schools. That difference became the focus of debate between members of the Wisconsin Homeschooling Parents Association, which opposes the bill, and other home-schoolers, including the bill’s authors, who see it as a boon for home-schooling.
Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), a home-school parent himself, and a staff member from the office of Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), the author of the Senate version, explained the idea to the committee. “I trust parents, first and foremost, to make the best choices for the education of their children,” Sortwell said. The legislation was based on the rules Wisconsin statutes lay out for home schooling, “since this is, you know, in a way similar to home schooling,” he added. “Home-school students overall tend to have some of the highest achievement, educationally, around the country.”
Rep. Don Vruwink (D-Milton), a public school teacher for 44 years, questioned that assertion. Vruwing pointed out that, in his experience evaluating homeschooled students who entered public high school, “I will say some home-school kids were outstanding. But there were some very low-level that weren’t even close. So, you know, I think we shouldn’t make assumptions. It depends upon who taught them.”
Malia King, an Oregon parent, testified that her own kids attend public high school, but that her family found Dane County’s all-virtual instruction during the pandemic very frustrating: “Over the last year we had to jockey for position to make things work.” Microschools, she said, would allow parents to band together to hire a physics teacher or a reading specialist with expertise in dyslexia.
The problem with this ala carte approach, Vruwink pointed out, is that physics teachers and reading specialists are not that easy to find, even for school districts, let alone scattered groupings of handfuls of families all over the state. King shot back that it might be easier to hire retired teachers for a couple of hours a week than it is to fill full-time positions.
Another Oregon parent, Kimberly Smith, expressed anger at the public schools. She had pulled her 5-year-old son when instruction went entirely online. “Virtual doesn’t work for 5-year-olds,” she said. “I think parents feel very betrayed. I think that parents feel like there’s a loss of control.” Microschools, she said, “enable parents to take the reins where everyone else has failed them.”
The strongest voice against the bill came from Rebecca Ahl, a board member of the Wisconsin Homeschooling Parents Association.
“Why are the bill’s sponsors promoting them as some kind of help for home-schoolers?” Ahl asked. “And why did the bill’s authors choose language that implies that micro schools are nearly indistinguishable from home schools, instead of being clear that micro schools are unregulated private schools?”
The bill, she added, “confuses the legal status and the legal rights of parents, through their specific, constitutionally recognized relationship to their own children, with the rights of any person in any place to run a private business.”
Ahl objected to the fact that the bill does not specify any administrator who is responsible for students’ education at a micro school, instead adopting language from Wisconsin’s home-school statute to give guidance on hours of instruction and subject matter, with the vague idea that parents are in charge, and no regulations of the type that regular private schools must follow.
Committee members including Donna Rozar (R-Marshfield) and Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego), who had experience with home schooling, warmly embraced the idea of home schooling and parental choice. “My kids went to private school,” Wichgers said. “I have 11 younger siblings. They all have many kids. And they’ve home-schooled, they’ve private-schooled, and in some cases, they have micro-schooled.”
Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee), meanwhile, wondered what home-schoolers do. “What type of activities do you engage in? … I’m not personally familiar so I would like to hear,” she asked a 14-year-old home-schooler who testified about raising dairy goats and learning math and science from her physicist dad.
“My concern is, what’s stopping parents from gathering together now?” Myers asked at a different point.
There is, in fact, no prohibition on such gatherings. Home-school parents testified that they participate in group gatherings, lectures, art classes, and other extracurriculars. But in order to count toward the 875 annual hours of instruction mandated by the state, parents must directly provide homeschool instruction. Pottery classes don’t count.
If home school goes year round, however, those 875 hours only come to two and half per day, Ahl pointed out, explaining why group activities are not really a problem.
The Wisconsin Homeschooling Parent Association explains its opposition to the new law in a statement on its website, which it ties to the history of Wisconsin’s homeschooling law, enacted in 1983.
At the time the law was being debated, the association states, “parents who chose to home-school were being harassed and persecuted for both failing to cause their children to attend school, and for running unauthorized private schools from their homes.”
Since neither home schools nor private schools were clearly defined in Wisconsin law, developing a law that for the first time clearly delineating those entities was a priority for the home-schooling community.
Home-schoolers were worried that, “over time, a situation could develop where extended family groups or other multi-family groups would form small private schools and call them homeschools.”
That is exactly what micro schools appeared to be, when the idea was first proposed.
“These unauthorized schools would essentially recreate the very problems that plagued both homeschoolers and private schools before the passage of our current law,” the parents association states. “This is why the original authors of our homeschooling law included the important words, ‘An instructional program provided to more than one family unit does not constitute a home-based private educational program.’”
In a nod to home-schoolers’ concerns that fly-by-night micro schools — or as Ahl put it, “Joe Blow from Kokomo who has an empty barn” — pose a threat to the credibility and legal protection of home-schooling, Sortwell said he redrafted his legislation making micro schools their own category of education instead of loosening the definition of home schools under Wisconsin law, as he originally planned.
That was good enough for Tina Hollenbeck, a home education advocate from Green Bay.
“The only connection between home-schooling and this micro school concept is that a current home-school law is being used as a model to create a parallel situation,” she said. “There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel when you’ve got something that works and can be modified for a new situation.”
Hollenbeck said she already knows of families who are banding together and essentially doing micro schooling while calling it a home school, “even though it’s not technically legal.”
“They don’t want to violate the law,” she said. “So this would give families, whether they’re currently home-schooling, or wanting to pull their children from a public or private school, to do something different, it would give them an option and that’s fair.”
“The pandemic has brought to light the need for more educational options,” Hollenbeck testified. Micro schools are “just another option.”
Still, she allowed, the majority of parents she knew who expressed interest in micro schools were not home-schoolers but public school parents fed up with online learning during the pandemic.
Since there were no public school advocates testifying at the hearing — perhaps because they were counting on the governor’s veto and keeping their powder dry for coming budget battles — the points both for and against micro schools, which would represent a new frontier in educational deregulation, were made by home-schoolers.
“I find it fascinating that this morning we spent quite a bit of time talking about lowering teacher preparation standards for programs here in Wisconsin,” said Ahl. “This bill, as written, allows literally anyone in any location to educate 20 or fewer children.”