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John Humphries


State superintendent candidate John Humphries wants schools that persistently do not meet state standards to be converted into private voucher or charter schools, or a new model of public school or some other governance model.

Humphries, one of three candidates seeking to unseat state Superintendent Tony Evers, on Thursday also released more details for his proposal to create a statewide school board to oversee the Department of Public Instruction.

Humphries disclosed the school conversion proposal in a recent interview with the Wisconsin State Journal. He said if he is elected as the state’s chief of schools, he would propose to bid out management of low-performing schools, including to private school voucher operators, new public school models or other administrators. Humphries said any kind of school operator could make a bid.

If the low-performing school is public, he said the proposal process would also allow the same public school administrators to apply, but with a different plan to raise academic achievement.

Evers said the proposal reminds him of the federal education law No Child Left Behind, which required schools that did not meet federal-imposed standards after four or more years to be placed into “corrective action,” which could have resulted in replacing teachers, converting the school into a charter school or closing it altogether.

The law was replaced in 2015.

“It’s like a back to the future — it’s something that failed. It’s No Child Left Behind, John Humphries’ version,” said Evers. “It didn’t work back then with President George W. Bush and it’s not going to work with him.”

State superintendent candidate Lowell Holtz, a former superintendent of Whitnall and Beloit school districts, said he is “adamantly opposed” to immediately converting “failing schools” into charter or private voucher schools or closing them.

Humphries characterized the plan as a way to improve struggling schools with the school community’s input.

“We can’t let schools go on forever failing to meet the needs of our kids but we have to be collaborative and courageous at the same time,” he said in the interview.

He said the process would be for the state’s lowest-performing schools as measured by the state’s report card system — which Humphries also is in favor of revising — and would not be triggered until the school in question underwent at least three years of state-directed improvement.

Humphries said the state DPI would first supplement funding for teacher training and curriculum coaching and help the school set targets for growth in academic achievement.

“Then if they don’t meet them, then we get together with parents, the educators, the local school board and the DPI — probably the state superintendent — to say hey, we’ve put a lot of resources in for three years, are we comfortable with the level of growth that we’ve accomplished? And if so, let’s keep going — if not, what can we do?” said Humphries.

Currently, the DPI provides additional funding to carry out improvement plans at the state’s lowest-performing schools and schools with high gaps in achievement between groups of students, identified by the U.S. Department of Education as such, according to information provided by DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy.

Six such schools that are outside Milwaukee receive $1.5 million per year in school improvement funds from the DPI.

Schools with such ratings within the Milwaukee School District are under district-level improvement plans.

Schools with a large percentage of students living in low-income households also receive federal money to help with costs of teacher training, among other costs related to improving academic achievement at the schools, according to the information provided by the DPI.

Revival of controversial idea

Humphries’ idea is similar to a controversial proposal introduced two years ago as part of a bill from Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, that would overhaul the way the state measures schools. Thiesfeldt helps run Humphries’ campaign for superintendent.

Under Thiesfeldt’s bill, persistently low-performing public schools would be turned into charter schools and state funding would be cut off for problem private schools.

That bill and the Senate’s counterproposal were unsuccessful. Gov. Scott Walker ultimately included some of the proposals in the Senate’s version, which did not include such sanctions, in his 2015-2017 budget that the Legislature passed.

Rick Melcher, a write-in candidate for state superintendent and longtime high school math teacher from Racine, said he supports Humphries’ idea as long as the school — if public — remains under the direction of the locally elected school board.

But he would oppose turning schools over to private operators.

“They have to be under the control of a local school board, so if something happens, there can be accountability,” he said.

Holtz said, “None of us want to accept failing schools. As state superintendent, I will support safety and discipline for every school in Wisconsin, empowering superintendents and principals with the support they need, which will include traveling teams who will participate in the collaborative reform efforts.”

Creation of a state school board

Humphries on Thursday also revealed more details of a previously floated proposal to create a state board to oversee the DPI. The board’s nine members would include an appointee from each congressional district and have three-year, staggered terms.

The president of the board would be appointed by the governor and other members by lawmakers of both parties, according to a release on the proposal. Members would be limited to two terms and must include at least one student, two parents of current students and two current or retired educators.

The board would be created by a constitutional amendment and be charged with approving all administrative rules related to the DPI; design and issue a new state report card and audit the DPI’s accountability measures to “ensure DPI is effectively using, but not abusing, its authority to help low-performing schools and teacher preparation programs improve.”

Amanda Brink, campaign manager for Evers, rejected the idea — saying Evers convenes dozens of advisory councils regarding a number of education issues about which the DPI provides support and guidance for schools.

“These councils, combined with Tony’s school visits, help shape the policies implemented at DPI,” she said. “We do not need more bureaucracy or more centralized control. The state Legislature passes education laws, while the state superintendent is directly accountable to the citizens.”

Melcher, who said he is a “mutt” politically but aligns with Democrats on education, said he would be “OK” with an elected state school board, but “if it’s going to be an appointed state school board I would be terrified.”

“That’s just John Humphries doing the bidding of the Republicans and the governor,” he said.

Holtz, who is backed by conservatives, opposed the idea of a state school board, saying unelected appointees would usurp power from local school boards.

“The last thing Wisconsin needs in its education system is another layer of bureaucracy,” he said in a statement. “Expanding government feels good to some, but the reality is it would give more power to bureaucrats in Madison and not to the school districts and parents where it belongs.”

“My opponents are OK with the status quo, but I’m not,” Humphries said.

Wisconsin is the only state with an elected state superintendent and no state board of education. Minnesota and New Mexico also do not have state boards, but have appointed superintendents, according to the Education Commission of the States.