Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Evers and Fernandez faced off before

Mike Dean and the First Freedoms Foundation, in the latest FFF newsletter, give the history of the last time State Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates Rose Fernandez and Tony Evers squared off. If you are interested in supporting the work of the First Freedoms Foundation, please visit their website.

Tuesday Primary for Superintendent of Instruction Includes Foes in Virtual School Fight

On Tuesday, February 17, five candidates will face off in the primary election in the race to succeed outgoing Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, Elizabeth Burmaster. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Tony Evers
Rose Fernandez
Lowell Holtz
Van Mobley
Todd Allen Price

The two who receive the highest vote totals will oppose each other in the general election on April 7.

For Tony Evers and Rose Fernandez, however, Tuesday's election won't be the first time they've squared off. In 2004, WEAC (the state teachers union) sued to close Wisconsin Virtual Academy ("WIVA"), an innovative charter school operated by the Northern Ozaukee School District. WEAC also sued Superintendent Burmaster, demanding an injunction to prevent her from paying state reimbursements to the District for students enrolled in WIVA. Assistant Superintendent (and current candidate) Tony Evers was Burmaster's "point man" in the suit.

WEAC's main complaint was that WIVA parents were too involved in teaching their children because parents were not "licensed" to teach in a public school. When Burmaster and Evers "switched sides" and supported WEAC in 2005, First Freedoms Foundation intervened on behalf of state representative Mark Gundrum, his family, and nine other families whose children attended WIVA.

Rose Fernandez' children were also enrolled in WIVA, so she organized a support group, the "Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families." The Coalition filed a briefarguing that parents helping teach their own children did not violate state law.

The trial court granted judgment for the District and parents, and WEAC appealed. First Freedoms submitted a brief arguing that the only rational way to read state certification statutes was as a standard for minimum qualifications and performance by classroom teachers employed by school districts - that certification is a "floor" prohibiting certified teachers from doing too little, not a "ceiling" prohibiting parents from doing too much. The Coalition also filed a brief supporting parents' rights to assist in their children's education.

During the trial phase, attorneys for First Freedoms Foundation and the District had conducted an extensive deposition of Dr. Evers. First Freedoms' brief included numerous statements by Evers where he admitted that even though there were no standards providing how much certified teachers must actually teach, it was still his opinion that WIVA was illegal because parents were teaching too much.

The Superintendent's opening and reply briefs echoed Evers' position - even though there were no standards prescribing minimum performance by certified teachers, parents were still doing too much.

Unfortunately, the court of appeals decision overturned the trial court, and ordered the Superintendent to stop paying reimbursements to the district. The order to "defund" WIVA would have killed it, so First Freedoms and the District immediately appealed.

While the appeal was pending, however, Fernandez led the Coalition in a successful effort to pass legislation approving WIVA's method of operation, 2007 Wisconsin Act 222. The new law saved WIVA and several similar virtual schools across the state.

If Evers and Fernandez emerge the winners from Tuesday's primary, the April 7th general election could well be a statewide test whether Wisconsin voters favor Fernandez' philosophy of greater innovation and involvement by parents and non-certified persons or, instead, favor Evers' view that children are best served by restricting teaching exclusively to certified teachers.