- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Legislative task force begins study of urban education

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Attracting and retaining teachers would be easier if Wisconsin policymakers created a more stable environment, the superintendent of Madison public schools told a legislative task force studying the issue Tuesday.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham told the task force that constant changes in state policies affecting testing, standards and other areas is a frustration for teachers and makes it more difficult to retain them. She was among several education experts, including University of Wisconsin president Ray Cross, invited to testify at the first meeting of the group.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called together the task force to study a variety of issues affecting the largest urban school districts in Wisconsin. The bipartisan panel toured two Madison schools on Tuesday before the public hearing at the Capitol, and it plans to visit five other large districts in the coming months, said task force chairwoman Rep. Jessie Rodriquez, a Republican from Franklin.

The group will examine early childhood education, mental health and behavioral issues, and teacher training and recruitment. Rodriquez said the task force is looking to recommend tangible solutions to the problems facing schools, with a report coming next year followed by bills for the Legislature to consider in 2017.

The first meeting and school tour focused on teacher recruitment and retention.

Cheatham detailed problems the Madison district faces in finding qualified teachers who reflect the diversity of the student population and also can work in hard-to-fill areas. She said minorities make up half of the student population, but only 3 percent of the district’s teachers are African-American and 5.4 percent are Hispanic.

The highest teacher shortage area in Madison is for bilingual educators, Cheatham said. More than 25 percent of the student population is learning to speak English, she said.


GOP proposes giving Legislature health insurance oversight

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The leaders of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee announced Tuesday that they’ve drafted a bill that would give their panel the ability to sign off on changes to the state’s health insurance program.

The Group Health Insurance Program covers a wide range of public workers, including state employees; state retirees and their spouses or domestic partners; local government workers whose employers choose to participate in the program; and local government retirees. The program covered tens of thousands of people as of January 2014. An 11-person board that includes the governor and attorney general administers the program from within the state Department of Employee Trust Funds.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, the co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee, issued a news release saying they have written a bill that would give the committee the power to approve or nix changes the board proposes through a 21-day passive review process.

They said in the release that the board has been considering making changes to the program that could hurt the health care marketplace and the economy and taxpayers should be represented in that discussion. They offered no details in the release, but Nygren spokeswoman Jennifer Malcore said the legislators are worried the board may move to a self-funding insurance model in which the state would pay benefits directly rather than purchasing insurance from HMOs.

“Overall, we just want legislative oversight,” Malcore said.

DETF spokesman Mark Lamkins declined to comment, saying the agency would have to review the legislation.

The Wisconsin Association of Health Plans, which represents 12 health plans available through the group program, applauded the proposal, issuing a statement saying decisions affect such an important program deserve legislative review.


Reporters denied access to education task force tour

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The chairwoman of a legislative task force studying urban education says she doesn’t know if the open meetings law was broken when television reporters were denied access to a school tour.

Rep. Jessie Rodriquez said Tuesday that it was up to the Madison school district to decide whether to allow the WKOW-TV reporters into a high school to witness the tour. A public notice for the tour said that there may be a quorum of the task force present, but no official business would take place.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, says the reporters should not have been denied access.

District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson says the district was not intending to deny access, it was trying to get student permissions to be filmed in line.


Democrats call on Walker, Republicans to change agenda

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Democratic legislative leaders on Tuesday urged Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers to accept federal money to expand Medicaid coverage, saying Republicans’ “insatiable appetite for power” has blinded them to the issues that matter the most.

Walker and Republicans have repeatedly rejected calls to reverse course on using the funds for Medicaid coverage for low-income people. But Democrats tried again Tuesday, arguing that Walker should reconsider now that his run for president is over.

Walker touted his rejection of the money during his run for the White House, and unveiled a plan to replace the health care law signed by President Barack Obama that made the funds available to the states to expand coverage.

Walker’s spokeswoman did not immediately return a message seeking reaction to the Democrats’ call.

Walker tried to be the most conservative GOP presidential candidate and failed, so now he should “take some stock and say this approach is not working,” said Rep. Peter Barca, the Democratic minority leader in the Assembly.

Taking the $360 million in federal funds over the next two years would fulfill the call to help those in need that Pope Francis made on his recently completed visit to the United States, Barca said.

“They’re stuck in the notion that the only thing they were elected to do was cater to the far right wing of their party,” Barca said of the Republicans. At some point, they will suffer the consequences of their agenda, he warned.

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