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January 29, 2015

Warmer reception for Senate school accountability bill

The state Senate’s version of a school accountability bill received its first hearing at the Capitol Tuesday, receiving a much warmer reception that a competing proposal in the state Assembly when it faced public testimony. Members of the Senate’s education committee took hours of testimony on the legislation, which is aimed at identifying taxpayer-funded schools that are falling short of expectations.

School administrators and state education officials were generally positive about the bill, primarily because it does not include sanctions for failing schools – a major change from the Assembly’s version of school accountability legislation.

State Senator Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee), the sponsor of the bill, says the goal is to make sure we “bring as many resources we can, and a lot of that is advice from successful schools on how to get better, and what they can do to make them a more effective school.”

The proposal is facing some criticism though. Democratic state Senator Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) said the focus needs to be on giving schools the resources they need to improve, and not just identifying those that are having trouble. “Adding to the incessant relentless focus on testing, without a concurrent focus on excellence in teaching, does not improve Wisconsin’s schools system,” Vinehout told committee members.

An official from the Department of Public Instruction said the bill reflects ongoing efforts to keep tweaking standards for schools. Jeff Pertl also urged lawmakers to stay away from assigning letter grades to schools, like the Assembly bill does. He warned that could create a negative view of schools that are meeting expectations by assigning them a “C” grade, which may have some people thinking “turn off the video games, and go crack a book.”

The future of the legislation remains uncertain, due to numerous differences with the Assembly bill. Republican leaders in both chambers are expected to work on a compromise version that can pass both chambers.

Lawmakers looking at ‘five strikes’ OWI legislation

Wisconsin Capitol Building (PHOTO: Jackie Johnson)

Wisconsin Capitol Building (PHOTO: Jackie Johnson)

Getting five drunk driving convictions could result in a lengthy suspension of your license, under legislation being crafted at the state Capitol.

The bill would create a “five strikes and you’re out” approach to dealing with drunk drivers – after a fifth conviction, you would lose your license for at least ten years. State Representative Eric Genrich (D-Green Bay), a co-sponsor of the proposal, says “people make mistakes and have some bad judgment, but at a certain point, I think we need to recognize that some of these more irresponsible drivers have lost that privilege.”

The legislation was originally modeled after a law in New York, which permanently revokes the license of repeat offenders. Genrich says feedback on the bill suggested that would not be the best approach in Wisconsin, so they adopted provisions of an Alaskan law that allows someone who keeps a clean record for ten years and undergoes a drug and alcohol assessment to potentially drive again.

Current law does already allow for some drunk drivers to lose the ability to legally get behind the wheel, although that does not stop some of them from driving anyway. Gengrich admits that’s a concern, however he argues that “I don’t think that percentage is 100…if we’re able to reach a significant minority within that population, that would be a huge step forward.”

Genrich says he hopes to introduce the bill later this session.

Selection of Wisconsin Supreme Court chief justice headed for April ballot

WRN file photo

WRN file photo

The question of whether Wisconsin should change the way the chief justice of the state Supreme Court is selected is heading to voters. The state Assembly approved second consideration of a proposed constitutional amendment Thursday that would allow members of the court to elect the chief justice, on a 62-34 vote.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) was among Republicans who argued that’s a better option than the current practice of the position going to the most senior judge on the court. Vos said “Democracy is supposed to be people electing each other, which is what will happen once this constitutional amendment goes to the people…they enact it in April…and we will see who the justices believe is best to lead the court.”

The measure faced strong opposition from Democrats though, who claim the push is part of a partisan attack on current Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson because she has often made decisions that have gone against Republican-backed laws. State Representative Dana Wachs (D-Eau Claire) accused Republicans of “rushing for retribution,” instead of focusing on economic development and job creation.

Backers of the amendment also argue that allowing the judges to pick the chief justice will help to alleviate some of the tension that has plagued the court in recent years. The chief justice dictates the agenda of the court and Abrahamson, often liberal leaning, is outnumbered by conservatives on the court 4-3. Representative Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) said the change will inject even more politics into the court though, and “it will not make the court work better. It may, in fact, make it work worse.”

The state Senate approved the proposed amendment earlier this week. It will now go before voters statewide on the April 7 ballot.

Wisconsin Assembly approves bill making ‘upskirting’ a felony

Wisconsin state Assembly (PHOTO: Jackie Johnson)

Wisconsin state Assembly (PHOTO: Jackie Johnson)

Legislation that would toughen criminal penalties for the practice of “upskirting” has cleared the state Assembly.

Upskirting refers to using a cell phone or other device to secretly capture an image of a person’s genitals or breasts without the consent of the victim. State Representative Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) says current law does little to protect people from becoming victims, largely because of a loophole that limits criminal charges if the victim was clothed. For example, if a victim is wearing underwear it could result in only misdemeanor charges or possibly none at all.

The bill would make upskirting a felony, punishable by up to three and a half years in prison.

Before a vote in the Assembly Thursday, Sargent argued that “it is inconceivable that this egregious assault on our individuals’ rights and privacies is not only unpunishable, but currently permissible in Wisconsin.”

The Madison Democrat pointed to a man in her district who has been arrested at least five times for taking upskirt photos of women in public, but has never faced anything more severe than a misdemeanor charge. She said his victims were “women who are shopping in stores with their children, minding their own business, not knowing that they were being victimized.”

The legislation passed on a voice vote and now heads to the state Senate.

State Superintendent Evers warns of ‘divisive mandates’

State Superintendent Tony Evers (Photo: DPI)

State Superintendent Tony Evers (Photo: DPI)

The state Superintendent of Public Instruction is warning educators that “divisive mandates” could be coming in the future.

Speaking to the State Education Convention in Milwaukee on Wednesday, Superintendent Tony Evers told the crowd that the state is at a tenuous crossroads. Evers said backroom discussion lead him to believe that “more divisive mandates, along with constrained revenue are on the way,”, and argued that there needs to be a robust public dialogue on education.

Evers said there’s currently a good balance between state and local control of schools, but he’s worried that “balance will shift under the guise of school reform.”

The warning comes as Republicans push new school accountability measures and Governor Scott Walker has called on them to make it clear local districts have the option of following controversial Common Core education standards. Evers urged lawmakers to hit the “pause button” on new mandates coming out of Madison. He also told educators that they must share viewpoints and contribute to the dialogue about the future of Wisconsin’s public schools.