“If man is going to rescue himself from a future intolerable existence, he must first see where his unmindful escalation is leading him.” - Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle (1969)
Rising to the Level of His Incompetence
It pains me deeply to say this, but Jeremy Thiesfeldt, since his appointment as chairman of the Assembly Committee on Education, has become one of the Wisconsin State Legislature’s clearest illustrations of the Peter Principle, often summed up as “rising to the level of one’s incompetence.” Having jettisoned any shred of backbone that he had previously demonstrated, Thiesfeldt has now become little more than a shill, doing the bidding of education deformers in state government and their federal and corporate buddies.
The first major sign that Thiesfeldt had ejected his own backbone was his “authorship” and advancement of a deeply flawed accountability bill early this year. His defense of the bill before his own newly minted committee was nothing short of embarrassing. It was clear to everyone watching that he had little understanding of what was in his own bill, much less the mechanics or validity of what it proposed. He demonstrated even less comprehension of the bill’s detrimental implications.
His most recent actions, however, should cause more than alarm in parents, school board members, and others. To be frank, they should spark outright revolt.
AB 239, a bill Thiesfeldt introduced last spring–and which passed in the Assembly on October 27th in a troublingly amended form also submitted by Thiesfeldt–contains language that directly prohibits school board members, principals, administrators, and others from advising parents to opt their children out of standardized assessments.
Here’s the language. See for yourself…
Section 4. 118.30 (2) (b) 8. of the statutes is created to read: 118.30 (2) (b) 8. No school board, school district administrator, principal of a public school, operator of a charter school…or governing body of a private school participating in the [voucher] program may encourage or counsel a parent or guardian to make a request…to excuse a pupil from taking an examination.
“Helping Parents” by Gagging Their Local Representation
AB 239 (and its identical companion, SB 193, helpfully introduced by Senator Duey Stroebel) ostensibly began as a means of protecting parental rights. It was drafted last spring, after a Fond du Lac mother was told that she would not be permitted to opt her child out of Common Core-aligned assessments. Based on outdated and poorly worded language in state statutes, school officials insisted that only parents of children in certain grade levels had the right to say no to the assessments.
Thiesfeldt leapt to the rescue, drafting legislation that expanded the number of grades covered in statute. Yet, despite abundant evidence that children are being assessed at younger and younger ages, the proposed language failed to protect K-2 students and their parents.
While I would not call Thiesfeldt’s solution exactly damaging, neither was it particularly strong or valuable. In fact, it left room for precisely the same difficulties that had prompted Thiesfeldt to act in the first place. Moreover, it continued to frame opting out as a privilege granted by the state. Quite simply, opting out is a parental right. Thus, a far better approach would have been for Thiesfeldt to propose striking the problematic language altogether, replacing it with, if anything, a passage affirming the right of parents to opt their child out of any assessment at any grade level–at any time and for any reason.
In June, after Thiesfeldt’s bill had already been introduced and widely touted as a protection of parental rights (which, as I’ve already explained, it really wasn’t), Thiesfeldt quietly offered a substitute amendment. For those not familiar with that terminology, substitute amendments are significantly re-drafted bill language. They replace in full a bill’s original language.
The language cited above magically appeared in Thiesfeldt’s substitute amendment. Its effects are manifold, but none of them are positive. In fact, the language is the height of hypocrisy several times over.
Kicking Parents and Local Control in the Teeth
For starters, the bill claims to protect parental rights while simultaneously curtailing the rights of the very people elected to represent parents at the local level–their school board members. So, while Thiesfeldt claims to champion local control and parental rights, his language would actually deal a serious blow to both. It amounts to a state edict, prohibiting local school board members from achieving key aspects of what they were elected to do: consider and represent the best interests of local parents and taxpayers.
School boards aren’t a one-way street. They are a local manifestation of representative government. At least, that’s what they’re supposed to be. Not only are school boards elected to represent the will of parents and taxpayers, they have an ethical and fiduciary duty to communicate with those constituents when they have reason to believe that policies or initiatives would cause harm to a district’s students or to their educational opportunities and experience. Yet, Thiesfeldt’s language would curtail this necessary and ethical communication of school boards should it contravene or become inconvenient to the state’s desire to keep the assessment machine running and the stream of personally identifiable student data flowing. It’s one more example of the degree to which local control has become an utter fiction in Wisconsin and that its death has been shepherded not just by Democrats but with the full assistance and initiative of Republicans.
Moreover, the administrative staff of any given district are–in theory, if not current practice–supposed to be directly accountable to the local school board. If local administrative staff feel that opt-out is in the best interests of their students, teachers, and school/s, then they should absolutely be in communication with the school board and working with them to formulate a plan for responsibly advising parents. Should the school board disagree with those administrators, it should remain a matter to be hammered out locally. The state has exactly zero purview to enforce a gag order on any of these people.
Or are we now living in a soviet?
Are local school boards and administrators really just supposed to be consensus-building apparatchiks for a central authority?
Sure seems like that’s what Thiesfeldt’s legislation aims toward.
But fear not, I’m sure the state will do a far better job at graciously, wisely, and benevolently managing school boards, directing administrators, and representing parents…if they just all prostrate themselves low enough and beg quietly and politely enough.
Kicking the 1st Amendment in the Teeth
Thiesfeldt’s language is likewise a stark violation of First Amendment rights. What business does the state have telling anyone what they can and can’t say–much less what school board members, in particular, can say in the course of executing their responsibilities to a local electorate?
The managerialist impulse is clearly alive and well in Madison, and Thiesfeldt has quickly become one of its eager architects.
Kicking Germantown in the Teeth
And then there’s Germantown…the remarkable breakout school district that legislators, such as Representative Thiesfeldt and many of the Republican co-sponsors of his bill, have claimed to admire.
Germantown remains the only school district in the state to reject the Common Core in order to pursue the creation of its own higher, more developmentally appropriate, non-aligned standards. That stance would be admirable enough on its own, but the school board–yes, the SCHOOL BOARD–took the additional courageous step this past spring of sending a letter to parents, recommending that they opt their children out of Common Core-aligned assessments. That direct communication with parents resulted in the achievement of a district opt-out rate of 81 percent.
Under No Child Left Behind, a mere 5 percent opt-out rate invalidates assessment results and prohibits sanctions from being levied against the any school, district, or state where such invalidation occurs. An 81 percent opt-out rate in even one district–resulting from simple, honest, effective communication between school board members and parents–has unquestionably terrified the state’s education centralizers and standardizers. Why? Because it signals that local control could actually come back from the grave in which many state officials have so assiduously attempted to bury it over the years.
In fact, Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction attempted to deliver a smackdown to Germantown last summer, claiming that the school board had violated…wait for it…federal law. That’s hogwash, of course, designed to scare the district back into compliance. There is a seven or eight step sanctions process that would have to ensue before even a dime of federal funding would be lost by any state or local entity. In fact, to date, not one school, district, or state nationwide has experienced a loss of its funding. But the threat certainly gets waved around a lot to scare people into line.
DPI further insisted that Germantown take corrective action to get its assessment participation numbers back up. So far, thank goodness, Germantown continues to tell DPI it’s done nothing wrong and has no need to take any corrective action.
But let’s face it: this language is designed to discourage stories like Germantown’s and has the effect of pointing a gun at that district’s school board and administrators–even if the gun isn’t yet loaded. It signals to school districts across the state that Wisconsin is not interested in maintaining local control–or, indeed, any real, significant, or constitutional separation of powers.
Trading Principle for Status: The Sad Co-Option of a State Legislator
The transformation in Jeremy Thiesfeldt over the past year has been stunning to watch for those engaged in the fight for true education in Wisconsin.
An early champion of those pressing to safeguard what remains of local control and substantive learning in an increasingly top-down, standardized education environment, Thiesfeldt helped to press for and subsequently co-led 2013 legislative efforts to examine so-called education reform in Wisconsin.
Appointed chair of the Assembly’s Select Committee for the Investigation of the Common Core Standards, Jeremy earned true appreciation from many for his efforts to ensure that average citizens and a wide range of informed experts alike would have a chance to contribute to a crucial dialogue on how Wisconsin educates its children. Republican leadership had, in fact, only yielded on public hearings under massive public pressure; it was clear to anyone watching that they would have preferred to continue marginalizing and ignoring the matter. Nevertheless, Thiesfeldt lent a quiet dignity and determination to the investigative process, even though there were clear attempts to undermine his work and that of his fellow committee members.
So where did that Jeremy Thiesfeldt go?
Jeremy rose in rank. That’s what.
He was offered the plum of a standing-committee chairmanship. And in picking up that plum, he appears to have traded his spine, another couple of valuable-but-unnamed body parts, his principles, and his interest in true representative government, all in exchange for rather less noble aspirations and trappings.
I can’t see into Jeremy’s mind. Only he can know why he’s sold out to such a profoundly disappointing degree. But if I were to lay odds, I would bet that he is motivated by a fear of losing the status he’s now attained. He is likely attempting to avoid being relegated to the outer reaches of legislative space by Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos, whose coercive tactics in controlling his caucus have become one of the worst-kept secrets in Wisconsin politics. All too many politicians have whispered to me about those tactics behind closed doors, always ending their alarming tales with, “But you can’t tell anyone I said this. I can’t afford to have it get out that I told you.”
There’s good reason to suspect, then, that the moment he accepted his Education Committee chairmanship, a few key folks started to tell Jeremy exactly what he’d have to do to keep it. In accepting a role he likely thought would enable him to assist people, he unwittingly donned his own choke chain.
If you think I’m going to let him off the hook and ask you to feel sorry for him, guess again.
Time to Grow a Set, Jeremy
When Jeremy Thiesfeldt was elected to office, he undertook constitutional and ethical duties to represent the interests of the constituents of his district. The people who voted for him did so in the belief that he would take difficult but principled positions on the issues. They trusted him to stand tall and represent, not cave in to bullying, not cower in a corner, and certainly not to sell out by doing other people’s bidding.
In these respects, “Representative” Thiesfeldt currently appears to have reached his level of incompetence. In any event, there’s no doubt that he’s failing. He is proving himself utterly unable to stand firm on principle. Quite bluntly, he is proving himself completely incapable of standing at all. The only thing he seems to be good at these days is serving false masters from a prone position.
As a measure of tough love and in a spirit of hope that he can turn himself around and get back on the right path, I would remind Jeremy Thiesfeldt that he wasn’t elected to serve Robin Vos. He wasn’t elected to serve Scott Walker (whose bullying tactics, usually via his legislative liaisons, are also an open secret). He wasn’t elected to serve Tony Evers. When it comes to education, he definitely shouldn’t be serving the pubic-private aims of special interests such as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
Moreover, despite the messages that he’s undoubtedly received from leadership, the Republican caucus is not his family. He owes his caucus ZERO allegiance. The only people to whom he owes any loyalty whatsoever are his constituents and, in relationship to this specific bill, the parents and children of Wisconsin–all of whom he’s currently betraying.
The question is, will Jeremy find his courage? Will he finally remember his duty to higher ideals and principles such as local control, ethical representation, true education, parental rights, and free speech?
Or will he choose instead to continue his all-too-rapid descent into the bowels of a corrupt political machine?
Here’s the thing, Jeremy, if you are indeed reading this…
Bullies and manipulators don’t go away when you cower. They will continue to pull your strings and levers until you say, “No more.”
Even if it means losing a chairmanship, getting kicked off a committee, or having your bills blocked, isn’t it better to take those knocks while remaining true to your principles and the people you were elected to serve? When leadership starts dealing those blows, we will see you standing strong. Your principles will contrast sharply with the corrupt machinations of others…and they’ll matter. You’ll matter. True success isn’t about clinging to power. It’s about speaking truth to power. Often, it’s about being a monkey wrench in the machinery of power. When you stand up, when you resist, when we see you do it, it’s the start of something bigger. It lights a spark. It feeds a movement. There are plenty of examples out there–including some in your own back yard.
Right now, you’re part of the problem, not the solution. You look like leadership’s broken slave, not a confident champion of the people who’s willing to use his wits to buck a corrupt system.
What matters more to you, Jeremy? Is it your credibility and honor in the eyes of the people you were actually elected to serve? Or the tenuous figurehead status cynically given to you by people who are determined always to jerk you into their preferred line.
What’s it gonna be, Jeremy?
We’re watching, and our patience for the evils to which you are now contributing has run out.