Citing COVID risk, Democrats on Assembly education committee walk out 

‘This is so far from what real democracy and real legislation look like’

By: - September 15, 2021 7:00 am
Side view of the top of the Wisconsin Capitol dome

Photo by Mark Danielson via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

As students and teachers begin an uncertain school year, with classrooms open for in-person instruction and the delta variant surging, the Assembly education committee met on Tuesday for a hearing on a bill to improve reading scores and tackle the achievement gap. But just as the hearing got underway, all the Democrats on the committee walked out. 

“This is where André Jacque came in with COVID, and they lied to us about it,” says Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb), referring to the Republican senator from De Pere, an outspoken opponent of mask and vaccine requirements, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 and put on a ventilator shortly after sitting in close quarters with colleagues in a Capitol hearing room. Democrats who were in a committee meeting with Jacque only days before he was hospitalized say they were not informed that he had exposed them to COVID. At Tuesday’s education committee meeting, committee chair Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) and the other Republican committee members refused to wear masks.

“The choice is to risk your life and that of your family members or don’t participate,” says Pope, who adds that she regularly spends time with her 97-year-old father. Another Democrat on the committee, Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie), has a newborn granddaughter he doesn’t want to expose to COVID-19.

“They allowed us to go back and watch on Wisconsin Eye and present our questions,” Pope says. “They shut us out of the democratic process and silenced our voices and those of our constituents. This is so far from what real democracy and real legislation look like.”

Thiesfeldt did read aloud some questions submitted by the absent Democrats. One from Pope asked how the bill before the committee, AB 446, which prescribes reading assessments for children in 4-year-old kindergarten to second grade, would improve student reading without providing any additional funding for instruction.

“She’s missing the point,” said Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), one of the bill’s authors. Thiesfeldt agreed. The screening tests in the bill are “quick and easy,” for teachers, and it’s important to find out early if students are struggling with reading, he said.

Business opportunities

Pope and her Democratic colleagues had prepared 27 written questions, many of which were not read aloud during the hearing. One of these concerned the list of company names in the bill, which specifies that the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) should approve certain name-brand tests including the Acadience reading assessment; FastBridge reading assessments; and the Renaissance Star Early Literacy assessment.

“This clearly creates business opportunities for very specific organizations,” the Democrats wrote. What happens when the companies named in the bill go out of business or stop producing a particular test?  And “is this the reason Pearson [a major educational testing company not named in the legislation] opposed this bill?”

“This is clearly a power grab and a business opportunity for somebody,” says Pope, who points out that a similar piece of legislation increasing reading assessments, without naming particular vendors, died in committee last session.

But the Republican co-sponsors of the legislation, including Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), insisted “It’s not about the money.” The bill, she asserted, would help reverse Wisconsin’s slide to the bottom in educational attainment over the last decade, particularly for African American students.

“We are not satisfied with the plummeting numbers for our education,” said Bernier. “We used to be a leader.”

“We cannot continue down the same path,” Bernier added. “I get pretty passionate about the excuses.”

To support the  Republicans’ passion about improving educational outcomes for kids of color in Wisconsin, they invited experts including Laura Stewart of the Reading League, who declared, “Make no mistake, this is a civil rights issue and a social justice issue.”

Early interventions can prevent a cycle of failure, Stewart testified. “It makes sense to invest early on instead of waiting for kids to fail.”

But there is not much “investment” in AB 446. Ben Niehaus of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB), which registered against the bill, testified that his members view it as an “unfunded mandate.” 

“Further assessments don’t directly improve reading instruction,” he said, calling the bill “reinventing the wheel” for districts that already have adequate tools to identify students who are struggling to read. What they need, he said, is adequate resources to help those students. He also noted that there is an “excessive amount of testing” going on in schools already — a total of 200 hours per school year for grades 4K through 12, or 30 full days of testing per year.

You’re ‘part of the problem’

Niehaus’ members are concerned about the loss of local control if the state prescribes specific tests, as well as how they will afford to triple assessments without any additional resources. “We do think resources have to be addressed as part of it,” Niehaus told the committee. 

His testimony, and WASB’s opposition to the bill, elicited a fierce rebuttal from the Republicans on the committee. DPI also registered against the bill.

“Every time I hear from your organization it’s all, ‘We can’t do it!’” said Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine). Couldn’t some of the federal money schools are receiving as part of the COVID relief package be used to fund reading assessments, he asked.

“What is the plan from your membership?” Wittke demanded. “This bill moves us forward to get us out of last place … to say you don’t have something better makes the WASB part of the problem.”


Thiesfeldt agreed with Wittke’s critique of the school board association. “I’m getting tired of this,” he said. “It’s time to either join up or get out of the way or at least go neutral.” He told Niehaus to go back to his membership and give them the message that they should change their position. “The kids in Wisconsin are crying out for this.”

“Lead, follow or get out of the way,” Kitchens added. “Just sitting back and saying, ‘Well, we’re not sure about this. We don’t like it,’ doesn’t cut it.”

DPI was also criticized by committee members, with Wittke questioning whether the state education department ought to be trusted to administer the assessment process, and Thiesfeldt lamenting that “the establishment” has been unable or unwilling to reverse Wisconsin schools’ decline.

That decline — which committee members pinned to a decade-long slide in reading scores — has not occurred in a vacuum. In fact, the last decade corresponds with a drastic reduction in resources going to Wisconsin schools, starting with former Gov. Scott Walker’s biggest cuts to school funding in state history in 2012. Gov. Tony Evers has twice proposed budgets that would dramatically increase school funding. But the Republican-led Legislature has slashed those budgets. In the last round, they cut state funding for schools so much that the federal Department of Education warned the state it might lose more than $1.5 billion in federal funds because it didn’t make the minimum “maintenance of effort” standard, which requires states to maintain a constant level of investment in their public schools.

Against that backdrop, the debate over reading assessments seemed like a small tree in a big forest. 

The reading assessment bill’s authors said it is specifically modeled on similar legislation in Mississippi and Florida.

They invited Kymyona Burk, a former education department official in Mississippi and current policy director for the Excellence in Education Foundation, to testify via video chat. Burk pointed to Wisconsin’s fourth grade reading scores, which have stayed flat over the last 10 years, as well as the dismal achievement gap for the state’s Black students, which is among the very worst in the nation.


If there is one state in the nation that Wisconsin should look to as a model, Thiesfeldt asked, what would it be? Burk offered up her home state, Mississippi, as a model for dramatically improving reading scores, and gave honorable mention to Florida.

Hearing Mississippi, which has long ranked toward the bottom of the nation for education, held up as a model for Wisconsin, is reminiscent of the protests signs during the Walker era with the slogan “Wississippi” — a bitter joke about how Walker’s union busting and education cuts would downgrade the state’s once-great school system. 

But Mississippi has dramatically improved student reading scores in recent years. “A longtime cellar dweller in the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] rankings, Mississippi students have risen faster than anyone since 2013, particularly for fourth graders,” the Thomas B Fordham Institute reports.

But there’s a catch. While Mississippi’s early literacy programs, which focus on the “science of reading,” have received a lot of attention, a less-noted factor is the fact that Mississippi is holding a lot of students back, with more students repeating grades K-3 than any other state. And holding kids back “does not improve achievement over the long run, but it does dramatically increase dropout rates,” according to Stanford researcher Linda Darling Hammond.

Pope dismisses the ‘Mississippi miracle.’ “They’re holding kids back. So they’re not testing them at grade level.”

“Spend some money on curriculum or reading instruction, instead of more testing,” Pope suggests. “The redundancy of these kinds of tests — it’s the old adage, if you’re taking your pig to market, don’t keep weighing him, you have to feed him.”

But Republicans on the Assembly Education Committee enthusiastically promoted both the Mississippi miracle and the idea that you don’t have to spend money to get results.

“If money bought a great education,” Bernier said, “the Minneapolis school district would have Einsteins. They spend $23,000 per student and they have a 50% graduation rate.”

“We talk a lot about funding,” said Wittke. He asked Burk to weigh in on whether money is the most important element in educational success.

Mississippi, Burk said, had put $50 million into its reading program. “Money definitely helps. But it’s really about how you efficiently direct it,” she said.

Public school advocates and school officials remain concerned about the big picture of school funding — especially after legislative Republicans socked away $550 million in the state’s rainy day fund instead of putting into schools. Evers transferred that money back into the general fund and asked them to work with him on spending it for education when he signed the budget, noting that the state had a historic $2 billion general fund surplus. 

“The last thing we need, when the education committee should be talking about how they could put a billion dollars of surplus money into schools, is another unfunded mandate,” says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “The education community is like, ‘Can we please use the surplus to meet our COVID needs? And they are like, ‘No, here’s something you can add to your plate without funding.’”

Like the Democrats on the committee, public school advocates were notably absent from the education committee hearing, however. Part of the reason is that, with a likely veto coming from Evers, the reading assessment bill just seemed like “another thing that distracts us from our real problems,” says DuBois Bourenane. Those problems, she adds, include COVID-19, an austerity budget that forces schools to use pandemic relief funds for general operating purposes and a takeover of local school boards by anti-mask-mandate community members who are hostile to public health.  

When it comes to testifying at legislative hearings, “a lot of people have gotten discouraged,” DuBois Bourenane says. Even DPI does not get to testify early in committee hearings anymore. Instead, bill authors schedule their allies first, and members of the public sometimes don’t get to speak at all. “School people have to take the day off, and then, sometimes when you are talking, half the committee gets up and walks away.”

Pope agrees. Just before the walkout, she told her colleagues, “What’s the difference? Sometimes they cut us off or tell us we can only ask one question.” They determined it wasn’t worth the risk.

“The bill is bad,” she says, “but the process is worse.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.