Republican lawmakers approved sweeping education changes early Wednesday that would expand school vouchers, overhaul the state’s school accountability system, and provide more money for schools.
It also would require public school students to pass a civics test to graduate from high school, let them attend schools in other states and let high school students earn half of their credits through a “learning portfolio.”
The 12-4 party-line vote, with Republican for it and Democrats against, came after five hours of debate and the rejection of several Democratic amendments.
Public schools would receive about $70 million more in funding during the 2016-17 school year under the Republicans’ plan, while retaining the $127 million that Gov. Scott Walker proposed to cut during the 2015-16 school year.
The added funding comes from a $250 per student special funding stream for school districts in the second year of the budget, according to the legislation package proposed by Republican co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee.
At the same time, the 1,000-student cap on the statewide voucher program would be lifted and students with disabilities would be eligible to apply for vouchers for the first time under a separate program. No more than 1 percent of a school district’s enrollment could receive vouchers, however.
The plan assures that private schools receiving school vouchers would receive about $7,200 for each K-8 student and about $7,800 for each high school student, the committee leaders said Tuesday. Walker’s proposed expansion would provide schools considerably less per student.
The voucher expansion would be paid for in a manner similar to the state’s open enrollment program for public schools — tax money would follow a student from the public district to the private voucher school. The plan could ultimately cost school districts about $48 million over the biennium, according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo drafted last week for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
The package also proposes to adopt Walker’s budget language that prohibits the state superintendent from promoting the Common Core State Standards, and from adopting new academic standards created by the Common Core State Standards Initiative, though there are none in the works.
State report cards would use a five-star rating system for schools under the plan instead of letter grades as Walker proposed in his budget, and would adopt Walker’s proposal to begin giving report cards to independent charter schools and private voucher schools next schoolyear.
The plan would ask DPI to find a new state test to replace the Smarter Balanced exam being used this school year by Wisconsin students, as well as require the Department of Public Instruction to ask the U.S. Department of Education to waive the federal requirement that public school students must take one state assessment.
The proposal allocates money to find up to five alternative tests for schools to choose from.
Other proposals in the Republicans’ package, which was being debated by the budget committee late Tuesday, include:
Allowing a student to attend a public school outside of the school district they live in, or outside of the state. The proposal would require the Wisconsin school district the student lives in to pay the tuition for that student to attend the other school. The tuition amount would be agreed upon between the two school districts, and the school district would receive state aid to pay for that tuition.
Requiring school districts to allow students who attend an independent charter school, virtual charter school or are home schooled but live within the district boundaries to play sports or participate in extracurricular activities. Students may be charged to participate.
Letting students fulfill up to half of the credits required to graduate high school through “demonstrating competency or creating a learning portfolio.”
Prohibiting test scores from students attending virtual charter schools from being included in school accountability reports for the schools’ host school district if more than half of the virtual charter students don’t live there.
Requiring students to pass a civics test to graduate from high school.
Allowing DPI to grant teaching licenses to individuals who wish to teach technical courses and have a set amount of work experience and teacher training. The individual would not be required to hold a bachelor’s degree.
Allocating $10,000 in 2015-16 to create a digital textbook marketplace.
Creating a grant program that gives school districts and independent charter schools $1,000 for each student with disabilities who graduates and goes on to enroll in a college or university, is “competitively employed” or is enrolled in other postsecondary programs like job training or high school completion programs.
Eliminate the Course Options program that allows college courses to be taught in high schools.
School districts also could begin to include voucher students in their enrollment figures that determine their state funding levels under the Republicans’ plan. Walker’s spending proposal allocates no extra money for schools in general state aid in the first year of the budget.
There were 3,540 students who applied for the statewide program next school year, of which 2,613 were new, according to DPI. Walker’s budget proposal modifies the statewide voucher program to wrap in Racine’s voucher program, which currently has about 1,700 students.
According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo, vouchers for new students to the program would be paid out of a school district’s funding, while continuing students would continue to be paid for with general state tax dollars.
Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators executive director Jon Bales said Tuesday afternoon before the Republicans’ proposal was released that he’s happy there’s additional funding coming to schools instead of a cut, but says the spending plan will have a “negative effect” on school districts as the number of vouchers expands.
“What we’ve really done is obligated taxpayers to pay for two school systems,” said Bales. “The impact of the open enrollment tie to vouchers will be devastating to districts who have a large draw on voucher students.”
Also, a new statewide board proposed by Walker that would authorize independent charter schools won’t be approved by the state’s budget writing committee, committee co-chairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said Tuesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.