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Unexplained Firing of Popular Director Ignites Concerns About UW’s Support for Charter Schools

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Top Facts

  • Gov. Tommy Thompson brought Vanessa Moran, a school principal, in to lead the UW Office of Educational Opportunity when he was UW System president.
  • Moran had authority to approve charter schools in the state and quickly approved more than her predecessors.
  • With Thompson gone, the UW has now suddenly fired Moran and won’t say why. The partially taxpayer-funded system has also placed a gag order on her.
  • Moran recently filed a complaint alleging mistreatment at a meeting. The complaint was filed before she was fired.
  • Educational reform leaders are concerned that Moran is being unfairly treated because of political bias and because some officials in the UW System don’t like charter schools.

Leaders in the education reform movement in Wisconsin are raising concern over the UW System’s sudden and unexplained termination of highly-regarded Office of Educational Opportunity Director Vanessa Moran, who has approved a larger number of innovative charter schools than her predecessors.

Moran, a former principal in the Fox Valley, was tapped to lead the UW’s Office of Educational Opportunity by then System President and former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who is widely regarded as the father of school choice and charter schools in Wisconsin.

We reached out to Gov. Thompson for comment on Moran’s termination, news of which is spreading quickly throughout the charter school community.

“Giving parents a choice in what school their children attends is a right all parents should have,” Gov. Thompson told Wisconsin Right Now. “Vanessa met and surpassed my expectations to provide those choices to parents.”

As OEO director, Moran had the authority to reject or approve charter school applications; the office also has an advisory board.

John Nygren, a former Republican state representative, told Wisconsin Right Now that he referred Moran to Thompson for the job.

“It’s something we saw coming,” Nygren said of Moran’s firing. He said that was because Thompson had left the UW, and he was Moran’s protector in a sense.

“Tommy Thompson is the godfather of school choice in Wisconsin. It’s something he believed in. He basically told her (Moran) to go for it, and she did,” Nygren said.

“Then Tommy left, and people in the bureaucracy of the UW System don’t want it (charter schools) to happen. Liberals hate this idea. The Evers administration hates this idea.”

“My take on it is the Democrats don’t want this authority at the UW System,” added Nygren. “They don’t want independent charter schools to even exist. Now, when you have 12, 13 and more coming, they want to shut this down.”

Vanessa moran
Vanessa moran

The UW System, despite its taxpayer funding, is being completely non-transparent on the matter. We asked Mark Pitsch, UW spokesman, about Moran’s termination and complaint, and the reasons for her firing. We also asked who is replacing her.

“We generally don’t comment on personnel matters,” Pitsch said. We also asked him to arrange an interview with Moran for us, but he did not respond to that request. We have not been able to reach Moran for comment despite repeated attempts.

We’ve also learned that, only weeks before she was suddenly fired, Moran had filed a complaint with the UW System, alleging that a member of the OEO’s board treated her in a hostile manner at a meeting. It remains pending.

The UW office had three directors in the five years before Moran came on board in 2020. During that entire five-year period, only three charter schools were authorized. They were all in Madison.

Moran authorized 10 more, all outside of Madison except one, in communities such as Chippewa Falls and Beloit. This innovation threatens some people in the education establishment, especially because the schools’ teachers are not unionized, and some of the charter schools have been championed by high-profile conservatives.

When Thompson left the position, Moran was essentially left at the mercy of educational bureaucrats.

We’ve learned from a Waukesha County source that the publicly-funded UW System has gagged Moran from talking but is keeping her on for a couple of months in severance pay as a consultant.

Her supporters say they believe Moran’s termination is designed to put the brakes on additional charter schools in Wisconsin.

That’s despite the UW’s rhetoric about the office. The UW System’s website says the OEO “connects students, families, professional educators, and community leaders with opportunities to create, operate, and be a part of public charter schools that meet local needs, interests, and demands for 4K-12 education all across Wisconsin.”

The Office of Educational Opportunity (OEO) “was created through the Wisconsin Legislature in 2015 as part of the biannual budget Act 55 and amended in 2017 to allow for statewide chartering of schools. Statutes 36.54, and 118.40(2x) define the scope and authority of the office. Its director is appointed by the president of the University of Wisconsin System,” the website explains.

“The Office of Educational Opportunity (OEO) exists to incubate educational innovations, to improve known best practices, and to increase educational equity.”

Some of the newer charter schools in Wisconsin are backed by prominent conservatives.

For example, Diane Hendricks, a conservative billionaire, is the visionary behind The Lincoln Academy, a new charter school in Beloit.

“It started with realizing, as a business leader, that people did not want to move to Beloit because of our schools,” Hendricks told radio host Tim Bremel on Beloit/Janesville’s WCLO news in 2020.

“We’ve been looking at this for about five years — just how bad our schools were in terms of performance and what our children were not receiving in a good education,” she told the host then.

At the time of Moran’s termination, controversy had emerged over another charter school called Lake Country Classical Academy. That school was authorized through The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University (LCOOU), which later ended its affiliation with the school.

According to the state Department of Public Instruction, these are the only authorizers of independent charter schools in Wisconsin:

The common council of the city of Milwaukee
The chancellor of any institution in the University of Wisconsin System
Each technical college district board
Waukesha County Executive
College of Menominee Nation
Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University
UW-System Office of Educational Opportunity 

Lake Country Classical Academy uses curriculum pushed by Hillsdale College. Its authorization is now before the UW’s OEO office, which could approve it to save the school. Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow also has the power to authorize LCCA. The school needs approval soon. [UPDATE: The day after this story ran, Farrow announced he would authorize the school.]

Moran’s supporters also believe that some officials inside the UW System started applying pressure to stop the approval of so many charter schools after Thompson left.

Moran’s firing came from a representative from Human Resources and Deej Lundgren, who is Interim Associate Vice President for Government Relations at the University of Wisconsin System Administration. Deej Lundgren became Moran’s supervisor after Jay O. Rothman replaced Thompson.

Deej lundregn
Deej lundgren

“I don’t understand why Wisconsin is so reluctant to give parents options,” Nygren said.

He said that some prominent members of the UW System’s Board of Regents, appointed by Evers, also don’t like charter schools, and have been vocal about that.

“The board is now under liberal control,” Nygren said. “She (Moran) was developing schools. That’s something they don’t like. The screws started getting tightened on her.”

Nygren said he heard that UW officials are claiming they fired Moran because she got “out in front of” the UW System in communication with legislators, which Nygren believes is ridiculous because her office’s authority is in state statutes.

“What are they afraid of?” Nygren said.

Nygren also confirmed that Moran “filed a complaint with HR a few weeks ago.”

As for Moran’s job performance, he said, “The results speak for themselves,” meaning he believes she was going a good job.

We also reached out to several of the charter schools, but officials there did not respond. We reached out to the woman allegedly named in Moran’s complaint, and we will add her response to this article if it is received.

Vanessa Moran “joined the Office of Academic & Student Affairs in November 2020 as Director for the Office of Educational Opportunity,” her LinkedIn page says.

“Most recently, Vanessa served as the Principal of Little Chute Elementary School, located in the Fox Valley. Other administrative positions previously held include Associate Principal and Dean of Students. Vanessa taught elementary education for a decade, during which time, she was awarded the Golden Apple Award by the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and was also named a Herb Kohl Fellowship State Finalist.”

According to her LinkedIn page, Moran “received her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay and her M.A. from the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. She holds a dual licensure as both a Principal and Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Additionally, Vanessa serves on the School Board for the Howard-Suamico School District, where she resides with her husband and two young children.”

Jim Piwowarczykhttps://www.wisconsinrightnow.com/
Jim Piwowarczyk is an investigative journalist and co-founder of Wisconsin Right Now. Married with 3 kids, a chocolate lab, and a german shepherd. Jim served as a police officer in Wisconsin for more than 20 years. His career started as a police officer in Milwaukee County in 1994 as a patrol officer, until he was promoted to patrol sergeant in 2003 where he worked until he left in 2009 to pursue business aspirations. Jim Piwowarczyk was a field training officer, evidence technician & hostage negotiator and conducted many drug investigations. Jim continued to work part-time for an area police department. Jim is avid real estate investor, and small business owner & developer. Jim has coached youth football and basketball. Jim is also an avid fisherman and hunter.
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