Gov. Scott Walker said Wednesday he is working to salvage a school accountability bill that has been pulled from a scheduled vote after encountering resistance from both public and private school advocates.
Sen. Luther Olsen, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said Wednesday that he canceled a Thursday vote on the bill because “we don’t have enough votes to pass it.”
Olsen, R-Ripon, told reporters he did not know if the bill would return this year.
The current version of the bill, first introduced last fall, would revamp the state’s report card system, require persistently low-performing public schools to close or be turned into independent charter schools, and subject voucher schools to state oversight, among other things.
Walker said Wednesday he is committed to having a school accountability bill passed this session and that his office has begun talking with legislative leaders about a compromise. He said the Olsen legislation could serve as a starting point for the discussion, but he didn’t have specific changes in mind.
“I’m not pushing for or against closing or not closing public or choice schools,” Walker said. “I just think anything that’s in there should be as equal as possible so we’re applying the same types of standards.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, is still hopeful that the bill will be voted on this session, spokeswoman Kit Beyer said Wednesday.
“We haven’t given up on it for this session,” Beyer said.
Olsen unveiled proposed changes to the bill on Monday. After that, many proponents of public schools and supporters of private schools and school choice said they were unhappy with many of the changes, but for different reasons.
The bill would make several changes to the state’s K-12 school accountability system, including assigning schools letter grades, and would change the criteria by which schools are judged. In addition, schools that receive an F for three consecutive years, or a combination of Ds and Fs with weak growth scores for five consecutive years, would be closed or turned over to a private charter management organization. Eligible organizations would have to operate existing charter schools with better test results than district schools.
Public charter schools with similar poor performance would have their charters revoked and wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the voucher program if they reopen as private schools.
The proposal also would require testing for taxpayer-subsidized students at private voucher schools while barring the lowest-performing schools from enrolling new voucher students. Participating private schools also could test all students for accountability purposes.
Matt Kussow of the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools said the bill should find a way to ensure any letter grade given to a private schools in the state’s voucher system reflects the achievement of all students in that school and also allow public and private schools to use whichever nationally standardized test they feel works best for their school.
Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Village of Pewaukee, said Wednesday he’d like to see the bill create an “accountability council” that would make recommendations for the formula used to grade schools. He also said he had concerns over how students at voucher schools would be tested, and if there’s a way to get a more accurate picture of how voucher schools compare to other schools.
“The complexity of a solid accountability bill is going to take a lot of work,” Farrow said. He also said he did not know if the bill would be ready for a vote this session.
Dan Rossmiller of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards said his members were concerned that the bill allows private schools receiving vouchers to pick which test they use to assess their students. “Their evaluation might be based on a completely different test than public schools’ would be based on and that’s not apples to apples,” he said.
Public school officials have also expressed concern that low-performing schools would have to be closed or turned over to charter school operators.
Olsen said Wednesday he was trying to create a report card system that treats all taxpayer-funded schools equally. “One of our main principles is that the report cards have to be fair,” he said.
He added that some of the choice schools can have their own standardized tests, so he’s not sure that’s a fair measure.
Rossmiller also said school board members across the state are very concerned about having an accountability system that applies the same rules and consequences for all schools equally.
“The bill would begin to have an effect on public schools generally within three years and in Milwaukee, in 1 year, and it doesn’t look like anything serious would happen to any voucher schools until maybe 2020 or 2021,” he said.
Rossmiller also said the bill’s proposal to require school boards to close persistently low-performing schools or turn them over to charter managers could have unintended consequences.
“This is really an unproven and uncharted area and I don’t know what unintended consequences there could be but I assume there will be a lot,” he said, noting that many schools that would fall into the affected category are high schools. “That tends to focus the problem at the high school level, and I think the proponents of this proposal have to be very careful that they don’t create a very chaotic situation.”
Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council and a teacher in Racine, said Wednesday that lawmakers must go back to the drawing board.
“It just needs to be redone,” she said. “This is a total re-do of the bill. There needs to be a public hearing if it goes anywhere.”
Kippers said the bill should hold private schools that are receiving taxpayer dollars to the same standards as public schools. She also took issue with the bill’s requirement that the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state automatically receive an F rating through the 2018-19 school year.
“Would we allow a teacher to say, ‘By the way, 5 percent of you must fail by the rules’?” Kippers said. “This is going to punish schools who do not have a long-term history of 2 years or more of failing.”
— State Journal reporters
Matthew DeFour and Mary
Spicuzza and the Associated Press contributed to this report.