Statewide Public School Choice Coming to Wisconsin

MacIver News Service | January 26, 2012

[Madison, Wisc…] More than a year after it was introduced, legislation that will bring unprecedented school choice to families who wish to enroll in Wisconsin’s public schools passed the Assembly Thursday.

Senate Bill 2, which expands the timing and options behind the state’s open enrollment policies, will allow parents and children more freedom than ever before when it comes to choosing the school that is right for them.

The legislation, now on its way to the Governor for his signature, will change the process of open enrollment. The law will allow for a freer transfer of students between public schools across districts. This legislation expands the formal application process from a three week span to three months and include provisions for year-round transfers for students that aren’t happy with their current schools.

The sweeping reform comes at the conclusion of  National School Choice Week and the new policy is a major victory for educational freedom for parents and schools alike. Families will now have greater options to find the public school that works best for their children.

This will have a significant impact reaching from regular public schools to charter and virtual schools across the state. Along with the labor reforms enacted in 2011, this legislation has the potential to dramatically change the education landscape in Wisconsin. By creating a free market within Wisconsin’s public schools the new law is expected to foster competition between school districts and increase the influence of parents in areas as far reaching as curriculum development and school operations.

Currently, families have a three-week window in the beginning of February during which they can apply to attend a public school other than their local neighborhood school. The resident school board can prevent students from leaving by rejecting their application and informing parents by April.

Parents will now have the ability to apply to up to three districts in an expanded timeline for open enrollment transfers. The application period will now run from the beginning of February to the end of April and families will know whether or not their transfer has been approved by June – in time for the upcoming school year. This means that parents will have a better idea of the options available for their children and in a more timely manner than the previous system.

Moreover, stipulations exist that will allow students to transfer outside of this window as well. If students meet certain conditions parents can apply for their transfer at any time during the year. If the receiving district has room available for the student, then they will be compelled to accept the transfer unless the district and the Department of Public Instruction both rule that the transfer does not have the student’s best interests at heart.

In short, parents disappointed with their child’s school will have more options for transfer – and they won’t have to wait for that three-week period in February to act. This means greater freedom for parents and, ideally, fewer instances of students being trapped in schools that don’t fit them for long stretches of time.

School districts will have to determine the number of open slots for all students – both regular and special education based – in January. These limits will be determined by criteria such as class size, student-teacher ratios, and enrollment projections. Students that are excluded from transferring thanks to these limits will be put on a waiting list, and parents will know whether or not they have been accepted by the third Friday in September.

The legislation had the support of educational groups across the state. The Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families was the legislation’s leading proponent and the American Federation for Children, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators all rallied behind the plan. The expansion is not expected to have a significant fiscal effect on public education, but will reach thousands of parents and families across the state. It is expected to be signed into law by Governor Scott Walker within days.

Parent advocates boast that this bill amounts to is the passage of year-round public school choice for Wisconsin’s families. Parents will have more flexibility and a greater awareness not only of their schooling options, but also over when their children can transfer if they decide that their neighborhood school is not for them.