Statewide Charter School Authorizing Bill Passes Through Joint Finance Committee on Partisan Vote

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

A bill that would create a statewide charter school authorizing board passed through the Joint Finance Committee today on a partisan 12-3 vote. Senate Bill 22, and Assembly companion AB 51, would give school creators a second avenue to earn their charter as a public school other than lone option available now – the local school board.

The creation of this board would allow for upstart schools to apply to a secondary statewide entity if a local school board denies their original application to become a public charter school. Currently, this policy is sponsored by institutions like the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Milwaukee, and Racine, but is not available statewide. The end result would create greater student access to charter schools throughout the Badger State.

Wednesday’s hearing adopted several amendments that made concessions based on earlier testimony. This includes provisions to protect smaller public school districts as well as to create a more diverse membership on the board itself. Key changes from the previous bill to create the statewide authorizer include:

  • Allowing charter schools to be authorized only in districts with an enrollment of 2,000 students or more. This eliminates over 300 Wisconsin districts from board supervision.
  • Altering the composition of the board; reducing its members, reducing the number of appointees the governor can place on it, and making the state superintendent an established figure.
  • Allowing for schools that have already established a charter school to open additional schools within their home districts without having to go through the authorization process a second time.

The 2,000 student enrollment limit for eligibility was created to protect the state’s smaller districts from losing funding. Sen. Robert Jauch (D-Poplar) was adamant about saving districts where small communities are deeply invested in and support their local public schools.

However, his argument is a flawed one. If a local community is happy with their public schools, there is little demand or market for a charter school to open their doors in that area. Few families would take their children out of the public schools they support to attend a new school.

The board’s importance will come into play in districts where local school boards wield absolute power over the fate of charter schools in the area. The addition of a secondary judgment will ensure that promising schools aren’t voted down due to issues of bias and are judged based on their merits as learning institutions.

Jauch made his distaste for the bill clear throughout the proceedings. “This bill is being pushed by an awful lot of people that think that public schools are evil,” said the Senator. “The great majority of public schools aren’t failing. It’s the mothers and fathers who don’t care as much as the teachers do. It’s not the school that’s responsible for students that come to school not prepared to learn.”

“This bill is designed to do handsprings for charter schools…and ignores the damage being done to public schools. That’s the problem.”

New JFC member Cory Mason also expressed concerns that these schools would drain funds from public schools. Much of the debate hinged on party lines, with committee Republicans speaking in favor for the board and Democrats disagreeing. Most amendments passed along these lines, receiving 12-3 approval with Rep. Tamara Grigsby absent for the votes.

The bills will now go back to their respective chambers for another vote that will determine the status of the statewide charter authorizing board. While concessions have been made that limit the scope of this legislation, it hasn’t been enough to gain bi-partisan support. However, it stands as a key policy to expand the educational options for students across Wisconsin and give families more breadth in finding the type of education that best fits their children.

Unfortunately, this option will only be available to students in the state’s larger school districts.