Senate Ed. Committee Passes Legislation to Create Statewide Charter Authorizer

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The Senate Education Committee passed three bills on to the State Senate Tuesday morning, including one that will expand the scope of charter schools in Wisconsin.

The Senators debated the merits of several school reforms in a two-hour executive session, though many of these reforms were included in SB 95, which includes several different measures that will have minor changes in schools across Wisconsin. The bulk of the conversation was focused on Senate Bill 22, which would create a statewide charter school authorizer and give these schools a greater presence outside of Milwaukee.

This statewide authorizer would provide non-profit organizations with an additional outlet to create their own charter schools. These groups would have 90 days to work with the local school district in their area, and if no agreement can be reached to create a charter, they’ll have the opportunity to take their case to the state board. This board’s decision would supersede the local entity’s ruling.

Previously, only local school districts could approve charter schools in their communities – with the exception of Milwaukee and Racine.

The amount of power this board has is limited at first, but will expand over time. It will only be able to contract with five schools in its first year, but that cap will grow by five schools each year until 2017-2018, when it will be lifted altogether.

The amended bill includes stipulations that allow local districts to include children they are sending to schools created by the authorizer in annual counts for funding purposes. As a result, charter students will be treated in a similar manner as open enrollment transfers. The sending district will receive the initial funding for the student, and then send the student on to their new school, along with the cost of educating that child. Since charter schools receive less per-student funding than traditional schools, this means that local districts will retain approximately $3,000 per student when they send children to state-authorized charter schools.

The bill passed through the committee on a 4-2 party line vote (Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, was unable to vote due to a travel commitment). It will be heard in the Senate in the coming weeks.

Two other bills were also discussed on Tuesday – SB 95 and SB 49. Senate Bill 49 will allow the state to terminate an instructor’s teaching license under grounds of immoral conduct. Spurred by a recent case where a teacher’s firing over viewing pornographic materials on school property has cost over $300,000 in litigation costs, this bill will allow the Department of Public Instruction to revoke any teacher’s license if they are found to have engaged in similar immoral conduct.

Senate Bill 95 holds a smattering of reforms, including changes in the classroom and amongst the administration. It would make many small changes in the realm of education, including:

  • Awarding students who participate in extra curricular sports partial credit for physical education classes.
  • Allowing principals the opportunity to incorporate WKCE results into a teacher’s evaluation process, but the WKCE cannot be the sole source of the evaluation.
  • Creating guidelines for charter schools to expel students, as well as give them the option not to accept students who have been expelled by schools in other states.
  • Allowing schools the opportunity to apply SAGE funds (used to limit class sizes for schools in low-income areas) to certain grades (2nd or 3rd grade) rather than having to uniformly apply the grants over K-3.

The bill passed today despite questions about using the WKCE to evaluate teachers. Though an amendment to allow administrators to use value-added data from their tests when it comes to grading teachers, the validity of the outdated test was still a sticking point for some legislators. The package passed behind a 4-3 vote, with the Democrats on the Committee each voting against it.

In the end, the group voted to bring Wisconsin one step further towards reclaiming its title as an educational innovator in the United States. The expansion of charter school legislation will create options for families and students and bring a wide array of educational choice throughout Wisconsin. While the majority of charter schools have traditionally been concentrated around the Milwaukee area, the creation of a statewide authorizer holds the promise of placing innovative schools across the state. If that happens, then students across the Badger State will be the ones who win.