The Republican-led state budget committee approved dramatic changes to the K-12 education landscape during a recent early morning vote. The new policies written into the 2015-17 budget include subjecting low-performing large school districts to a state-imposed reorganization, lifting the cap on school vouchers and changing the way students with disabilities are educated.
The Joint Finance Committee is finishing its work on the spending plan. Then the full Assembly and Senate will take it up, before Gov. Scott Walker reviews a version to sign.
Here is some clarification of a few of the proposals:
Q: The budget would gradually lift the 1,000-student cap on taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools under the statewide program. How many students might take advantage of the statewide voucher system if there is no cap?
A: It’s hard to predict, but there are currently about 3,500 applications from students seeking vouchers in the statewide program. That includes about 2,600 new students.
Q: How would a new voucher program for students with disabilities work?
A: If a public school student receiving special education services had applied to attend a new school district through the state’s open enrollment program and was denied, that student could receive a voucher that school year. Private schools would receive $12,000 from the Department of Public Instruction per student.
Any private school may open their doors to students with special education vouchers, and can specify how many students they could handle. And a students’ family income does not matter as it does in the state’s other voucher programs.
Republican lawmakers on the state’s budget writing committee also eliminated a school district’s ability to deny an open enrollment application for students with disabilities on the basis that it would cost too much to educate them.
Q: Why do some special education advocates oppose vouchers?
A: Private schools are not required to follow federal disability laws, so there’s no guarantee that students would receive adequate services, critics say. Advocates for the proposal, including GOP Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills, have said not providing students with disabilities the same opportunity to receive school vouchers as other students is unfair.
Common Core and testing
Q: Budget language “prohibits the State Superintendent from giving effect” to the Common Core State Standards. What does that mean?
A: According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the bill doesn’t define specific policies or actions that would be off limits. The Department of Public Instruction anticipates the bill requires DPI to stop advocating for or promoting the standards to school districts.
Q: The Common Core-aligned Badger Exam was used for one school year and was eliminated in Walker’s proposed budget. What happens next year?
A: The bill Republicans approved requires the state superintendent to find a new state test that could assess students in English, reading, writing, science and math. A request for proposal (RFP) has been released by DPI for a new test.
DPI also is required to ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from federal requirements that mandate one test be given to all students, in order to provide schools with options of tests.
The bill also calls on high school students to pass a separate civics test to graduate starting in the 2016-17 school year.
Q: Have any other states obtained a federal waiver for the requirement that students take just one test statewide?
A: According to Brad Carl, associate director and researcher at the Value-Added Research Center at UW-Madison, Utah and New Hampshire in recent years were allowed to provide multiple tests on a trial basis for a small number of school districts.
Q: How soon can DPI realistically have a new statewide test (or tests) in place?
A: Carl said there’s a small pool of test companies that have tests that meet the budget’s requirements and could be ready by the 2015-16 school year. DPI said earlier this year they released the RFP before the budget had been finalized in order to ensure a new test would be ready by the start of the testing window during the 2015-16 school year.
Q: Will private voucher and independent charter schools be graded using the same report cards as public schools, and what will be the consequences for a failing grade?
A: Yes, under a five-star grading system that accounts for students’ growth in reading and math skills, school poverty levels and a school’s ability to close gaps in achievement among groups of students. There are no sanctions outlined for failing grades except for school districts with more than 15,000 students that perform in the lowest report card category for two consecutive years. Those school districts would be subject to a state-imposed reorganization. Right now, that applies to Milwaukee.
Q: Public school districts would be required to allow students who are home schooled, attend an independent or virtual charter school or attend private schools to participate in sports or extracurricular activities. A fee may be charged to those students. What is the reasoning for this proposal?
A: Rep. Bob Kulp, R-Stratford, says he proposed the bill because students living in the school district, who have parents who pay property taxes, should be able to take advantage of such activities. Critics say allowing non-district students to participate could bump district students off teams.
Q: The state budget allows school districts to hire teachers without bachelor’s degrees in some cases? Why would they do that?
A: Some school districts — especially in rural areas — have trouble hiring and keeping teachers in hard-to-fill fields like technology education. Those teachers might be lured to other districts with the promise of higher pay, or they could make more in the same field but not in teaching. This could make it easier to fill those spots, but critics as well as rural schools advocates say it depletes the quality of a teaching license. The provision applies only to teachers hired for subjects other than math, reading, English, and social studies.
Q: School districts would be allowed to let high school students fulfill up to half of their graduation credits through learning portfolios or demonstrating competencies. How will it be implemented?
A: School districts are charged with creating the portfolio requirements.
Q: Do other states allow this?
A: There’s at least one group of New York City high schools that have allowed their students to create learning portfolios and oral presentations instead of taking state-mandated subject area tests to graduate.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the number of new students seeking vouchers under the statewide program.