MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin lawmakers are considering a bill that would fundamentally change the state’s accountability system for public and private schools.

accountabilityThe legislation, introduced in the Senate Monday, would require state testing of all taxpayer-subsidized students attending private schools using vouchers through the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, and would prevent the lowest-performing voucher schools from receiving new students, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.

The bill would also require the state’s worst public schools to close and reopen as charter schools, and “eligible organizations would have to operate existing charter schools with better test results than district schools,” according to the news site.

“We’re going to start holding anybody who gets public money accountable for getting results. That’s the bottom line,” Sen. Luther Olsen, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, told the Journal.

On the surface, much of the legislation makes sense. Increasing accountability is generally a good thing, but any measure that would prevent students from gaining access to educational options outside of the public school system should be approached with caution. The best way to improve schools is to have competition, and there isn’t much competition if you don’t have enough charter or voucher schools.

The most obvious issue with the legislation is it would result in “low-performing” voucher schools from accepting new students through the state’s voucher program. The details of how that accountability measure would be implemented are critical.

Would voucher schools be measured against other voucher schools to determine which are “low performing?” If that’s the case, it could mean public school students trapped in bad schools would be denied access to a better-performing, but not the best, private voucher school. In other words, what if the lowest-performing voucher schools outperform public schools? Should they still be penalized?

Officials with the state Department of Public Instruction, and legislative leaders, are reserving comment on the proposed changes until the details are hashed out, but it’s clear Wisconsin’s top Republicans are focused on increasing accountability for schools in general.

Kit Beyer, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, told the Journal the lawmaker wants to address school accountability this session, but didn’t comment specifically on the proposed bill.

“He supports more accountability measures for every school that receives public funding,” Beyer said.

Gov. Scott Walker also wants a school accountability bill on his desk that he could sign by the end of his term, spokesman Tom Evenson told the Journal.

The reforms proposed this week are an updated version of legislation introduced last year by Olsen and Rep. Steve Kestell, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee. That bill was reworked with the input of officials representing DPI, voucher schools, and charter schools. Olsen is pushing for a vote on the revamped regulations in February.

Other changes in the new bill include a new A-F letter grading system for schools to replace current terminology, and a new formula for determining how schools are performing that incorporates student demographics into the equation, the Journal reports.

“Under the proposal, 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,” according to the news site.

“A school district could not employ any of the (current) staff at the charter school, though it would have to pay at least 90 percent of its own per-pupil cost for each student attending the charter school.”

“Private voucher schools that don’t perform would not be allowed to accept new students or reopen as a charter school. But those schools would have the option of having students take the state test or a different one,” the Journal reports.

The legislation is in its earliest phase, and likely will see revisions during the legislative process, so it’s difficult to determine how the final product might impact Wisconsin students.

What is certain is that Wisconsin lawmakers are focused on making significant changes to how school performance is evaluated, and all of the state’s schools likely will see increased accountability.

For some in the public school education establishment, that will be a hard pill to swallow.

“I don’t know what the grading scale will be, but in general, people on school boards are against proposals that take away school board authority,” Madison school board president Ed Hughes told the Journal.

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