By Rebecca Kemble and Nicole Schulte
On Wednesday, March 28, the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families held a lobbying day and awards ceremony for Governor Scott Walker and other Republicans in the legislature at the Concourse Hotel in Madison. The event was stage managed by Brian Fraley, communications director of the MacIver Institute, an organization that, “promotes free markets, individual freedom, personal responsibility and limited government.”
MacIver institute videographer Bill Osmulski was filming the proceedings, but no other local media outlet appeared to be present.
The event was attended by about 30 adults and 100 children, plus lobbyists, Governor Walker, legislators and their staff. The purpose of the event was to prepare the virtual school families with information with which to lobby their legislators, and to thank the Senators, Assembly Representatives and the Governor for passing SB 2. That law loosens restrictions on open enrollment deadlines and requirements for public school students.
Virtual schools are on-line schools that students “attend” from the comfort of their own homes. They are charter schools run out of particular local school districts, so in order for a child to “attend” a virtual school they have to transfer into the school district that hosts the program. Since very few attendees of virtual schools live in the public school district that hosts them, extending open enrollment deadlines means more students and therefore higher profits for companies that sell virtual school services to the public.
After the awards were bestowed on Senators Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) and Representatives Andre Jacque (R-Bellevue) and Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), they left the hotel to return to their offices in the Capitol a block away.
A couple of citizens saw the lawmakers leaving the hotel and wondered what they had been doing there. They discovered that the WCVSF had hosted the legislators and so became curious about the event. They walked into the room and sat quietly at the back for a few minutes before they were asked to leave.
I was also sitting in the back on the opposite side of the room. I had no idea these two people had entered, much less that they had been asked to leave. At one point in the proceedings, Brian Fraley motioned to WCVSF founding board member Rose Fernandez to come off the stage. She left the room for a few minutes, and when she came back Fraley went up to the podium and said, “I want to thank Rose for taking care of those protesters for us. It’s like the Jerry Springer Show out there! I’d like to remind you all that just because we’re in Madison doesn’t mean that we have to behave like Madison.”
I wrote an article about the event that was posted the next day. That same day I ran into the couple who had been evicted from the event. I conducted an interview with the man I will call Wisconsin Taxpayer. Not surprisingly, his story is much different from the one told by Fraley to the WCVSF audience. (See the full interview linked at the bottom of the story.)
Wisconsin Taxpayer tells a tale of a person who is interested in public education wanting to find out more about virtual schools and the WCVSF When they were asked to leave, they inquired why they couldn’t stay and listen in. The people who had asked them to leave didn’t have any answers to their questions.
Mr Taxpayer said, “We asked them what were (the legislators) getting awards for and they said, ‘we don’t know.’ And we said, ‘were you in the room?’ And they said, ‘yeah, we were in the room.’ And then we asked them again, ‘what are they getting awards for?’ and they said again, ‘we don’t know.’ And then we said, ‘are you lying?’ And they said, ‘no, we’re not lying, we’re just volunteers.’ And then we said, ‘Oh, you work for the Concourse Hotel?’ And they said, ‘no, we’re volunteers of the group.’ ”
Taxpayer made one final plea to the volunteers: “I’m really confused. All I want to know is what you guys are doing, and, you know, my public tax money is going to this, and, it’s like a school board meeting. They publish that in the paper and this is like your annual meeting, right? So, you’re celebrating the Republican legislators for doing something, so what did they do?” No satisfactory answer to that question was forthcoming, so the couple decided to leave.
Just as they reached the bottom of the stairs, however, they were called back upstairs by a woman who was later identified as Rose Fernandez. She told them it was a private event that required registration in order to attend. Taxpayer asked, “so you’re not getting any public money?” Fernandez replied, “This is a public school.” Taxpayer then said, “well if it’s public, I should be able to go in,” but they were refused entry again.
After that, Taxpayer told Fernandez, “You must be doing something very secret in there, otherwise you wouldn’t be so afraid of hiding what you’re doing with our money.” After that, he and his companion left, and that’s when Fernandez returned to the room where she was thanked for taking care of “the protesters.”
When I told Taxpayer that his actions had been characterized as a Jerry Springer Show type of event, he was flabbergasted. I asked him whether there was any element of their eviction from the room that could reasonably be characterized as Jerry Springer Show-like. This is his reply:
“Well, no. We were in the back of the room, we were not on stage. There was not a yell, there was not even talking until we left the room. In other words, they asked us to walk out, we walked out without talking. OK, so, we made virtually zero vocalizations in the room. I’m really serious about this. And then we went out into the hall and voices were never raised. So there was no fighting, there was no audience watching any fighting, because there was no fighting and there was no audience. There was just a conversation that I found very confusing. I didn’t know whether they were private or public, I didn’t know where we were supposed to stand to get our stuff together to leave, and then when we were leaving, they wanted us to come back.”
Taxpayer said this about his attempt to learn more about virtual schools and the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families: “Here’s the message I got: It’s a publicly funded entity that is not open to the public. They make decisions and they work with legislators behind closed doors. That’s the truth.”