CJ Szafir and Libby Sobic: DPI should let all schools count online learning
MILWAUKEE — The Evers administration’s war on school choice continues.
The latest attack is from Gov. Tony Evers’ appointed successor at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who is refusing to allow private schools in the choice programs to count online (“virtual”) learning toward annual class-time requirements. She is doing so even though DPI has permitted public schools to use virtual learning for a variety of reasons, including to make up for class cancellations caused by Wisconsin’s winter weather.
This is unfair and wrong. We also believe it is illegal. Last month, attorneys at our organization, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), sued Taylor and DPI in Waukesha Circuit Court on behalf of School Choice Wisconsin Action, a membership organization of private choice schools.
This winter has been brutal for Wisconsin’s schools. With unprecedented snowfall, temperatures frequently below zero and mass flooding, Wisconsin K-12 schools have been forced to cancel classes at an extraordinary rate. Because of a state law that requires students to attend more than 1,000 hours in the classroom, many schools are having to make up class time by extending minutes in their school day or by adding days to the school year.
But to avoid canceling classes, public schools are choosing the more innovative route of virtual learning, which permits districts to teach courses online through tablets and computers. For example, some school districts, including a high school in Kenosha, refused to cancel class during the polar vortex and instituted a “virtual learning day” so students could continue to attend school online. As explained by Menominee Falls Superintendent Corey Golla: “We are really approaching that time where a snow day means you are not going to school but you will still be expected to continue learning.”
Unless the school is a private school in the Wisconsin school choice programs.
In February, private schools in the choice programs reached out to DPI, the state’s education agency, to ask to use virtual learning toward its required classroom instruction time. DPI said “no,” denying choice schools the same benefit of online learning as public schools.
Yet DPI has no legal basis to make such a determination. State law is silent on the issue. And if DPI wants to penalize choice schools, it needs to go through the rule-making process, which would require legislative oversight by the Republican majorities.
Private choice schools want to fully utilize virtual instruction as a way to incorporate innovative curriculum to better serve their students. Consider Milwaukee Lutheran High School, a private school in the choice program educating about 800 students, the majority of whom are economically disadvantaged. It boasts a newly formed Free Enterprise Academy that teaches the principles of free markets and financial literacy. For two years, Milwaukee Lutheran has been implementing online courses and digital learning.
As explained by its principal, Adam Kirsch: “This year, we piloted a ‘digital day,’ which meant Milwaukee Lutheran students received their instruction virtually while our faculty was able to receive enhanced professional development. Our ‘digital day’ pilot was met with a great deal of positivity from both our faculty and our families.”
Kirsch lamented his inability to have this instruction count toward class-time requirements. “Unfortunately,” he said, “due to a recent interpretation by DPI, we were told that private schools cannot count a digital day with digital instruction as a part of our school instruction.”
Several state lawmakers, including Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, and Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, are working to fix this with legislation. Of course, it’s not clear what the final language of the bill will be, or whether Gov. Evers, a school choice opponent, would sign it.
This issue impacts more than 40,000 students in Wisconsin, from low- and middle-income families who attend a private school of their choosing. The schools that these students attend should be treated fairly under the law by the Evers administration. Because they are not being treated fairly, WILL and School Choice Wisconsin Action are taking this battle to court.