April 18, 2014

School accountability bills face uncertainty

As the current legislative session winds down, efforts to enact new school accountability measures in Wisconsin appear to falling short.

Lawmakers have been working on a variety of proposal aimed at tracking student performance in charter schools and private schools that accept voucher students. The move is seen as the next step in efforts to lift the current enrollment cap under the state’s school voucher program. However, differences between the two chambers on how to approach the issue have made it difficult to reach an agreement so far.

A state Assembly committee on Wednesday held a hearing on legislation from the Representative Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), which would track student performance at public, charter, and private voucher schools using the same report card system. Schools would be graded using an “A through F” system. Public schools that fail three years in a row would be forced to convert to a charter school or shut down, while private schools that fail three years straight would lose their ability to accept voucher students. Charter schools would also have to shut down if they receive three straight “F” grades.

Steineke says the goal of the bill is “to hold all schools that receive taxpayer funding accountable in the same way.” However, the proposal is being met with little support from either side of the aisle. Fellow Republicans have voiced concerns about the bill and it remains unclear if it even has the votes needed to get out of committee. Even if the Assembly were to pass it, Senate GOP leaders have indicated they have no plans to act on the bill.

While a similar proposal was considered in the Senate earlier this year, that bill appears to have stalled as well. The most recent version only sets the stage for an accountability system instead. The chamber’s Education Committee is scheduled to vote today on a bill that would track student performance in private voucher and charter schools, although it does not include any sanctions for schools that fail to meet expectations. Supporters of the package say a decision on how to react when those schools fail to perform would come in a future legislative session.

Governor Scott Walker has been pushing for lawmakers to act on the issue. Speaking with reporters in Madison Wednesday, Walker said he would prefer to have a comprehensive bill that address the accountability issue, but “he’ll take something over nothing.” The governor says he believes any school that gets public money should be providing objective information to parents and the public about how those schools measure up.