Safeguarding Students’ Rights — For All

It’s an ominous sign when lawmakers try to rush something through on short notice, or schedule hearings when they know people will be unavailable. Teachers had a reason to be leery when the Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules gave one week’s notice for a hearing on suspending a number of educational regulations, and then held the hearing on Aug. 24 — after many teachers had already started school and when others were scrambling to get their lives in order before classroom bells started ringing again.

The proposed rule changes only confirmed suspicions. Led by two Republican co-chairs, the committee proposed to gut several Department of Public Instruction regulations, in particular several designed to ensure equitable treatment of students.

Current DPI rules, for example, call for each school district board to “provide a program of guidance and counseling services for all students.” The committee proposed eliminating the words “for all students” and getting rid of the requirement for licensed counselors.

Similarly, the committee proposed slashing the words “for all students” in the regulation requiring instruction in health, physical education, art, and music. Furthermore, it proposed eliminating the requirement for a written curriculum and licensed teachers in these areas. It’s not hard to imagine the implications of the changes:. Get rid of licensed health, phyed, art, and music teachers, and force already overburdened classroom teachers to provide instruction in these areas — if instruction is provided at all. Clearly, the committee considers health, art, music, and phy-ed “optional activities.” Just as clearly, it will be poor districts coping with shrinking budgets that will be under more pressure to cut such programs.

A third proposed rule change targets bilingual education programs, at a time when the language-minority population of Wisconsin is growing. In essence, the proposed change would eliminate state supervision of bilingual programs designed to ensure that the needs of language-minority students are being assessed properly, and that the bilingual programs are meeting those needs. We fear that gutting accountability measures for bilingual programs is likely to allow an indifference that will lead to discrimination against language-minority students.

The committee also wants to jettison non-discrimination requirements. Specifically, it wants to get rid of the mandate that school districts submit a report every five years to DPI on how the district ensures it doesn’t discriminate against pupils on the basis of race, sex, national origin, ancestry, creed, pregnancy, marital or parental status, sexual orientation, or physical, mental, emotional or learning disability. School districts, for example, are asked to report enrollment trends in classes and programs, pupil assessment and testing, disciplinary actions, awarding of scholarships, and so forth, to demonstrate that students are not being discriminated against. Apparently, the committee believes that racism, sexism and other forms of bias against students are no longer problems, or is it not concerned about discrimination. Both explanations fit disturbingly well with the new “Newt”onian world we live in.

Despite the hearing’s short notice and atrocious timing, some 250 students, parents, educators, community activists and business representatives packed the meeting to criticize the proposed changes. That’s on the plus side. On the negative side, Senate co-chair Timothy Weeden has been replaced by Sen. Bob Welch, who is considered even more conservative. The committee has said it will make its decisions in executive session (i.e., no public comment allowed), but has not set a date. Given past practice, we wouldn’t be surprised if Dec. 24 or Dec. 31 crop up as possibilities.

There is already a wide gulf in this state between promises of equitable treatment of students and educational reality. Let’s take action so that even promises of equity aren’t eliminated.