Wisconsin Advances an Amazing Education Reform Measure

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Parents in Wisconsin had a tremendous victory last week when the legislature passed a change in the state’s open enrollment law making it easier for students to transfer from one school district to another. The change in the law expands the traditional window for parents to participate in the open enrollment program from three weeks to three months. The change in the law also includes a compromise that allows for year-round transfers of students between school districts if the students are welcomed and if the parents find it necessary.

These changes in the open enrollment law were a tremendous victory for supporters of public school choice in Wisconsin and the victory was the highlight of the annual “School Choice Week.”

The expansion in the allowed open enrollment time also comes at a time of renewed energy in reforming education under Governor Scott Walker and the legislature. Under ACT 10, the school districts in Wisconsin have greater flexibility in setting the work rules, including expected hours in the workday and with seniority.

The sweeping changes of ACT 10 are also allowing school districts to experiment with merit pay. As the MacIver Institute recently reported, the Cedarburg and Hartland-Lakeside School Districts will be among the first to try merit pay to see if it improves student performance.

The governor has also announced new legislation is coming that will rate all schools on proficiency and student progress, create a teacher and principal evaluation system, and implement the Read to Lead proposed reforms.

This is a dramatic change in direction from when school choice was on the defensive during the Jim Doyle era. Then Doyle and the teachers unions tried to prevent public online charter schools from using open enrollment, effectively shutting them down. When that was unsuccessful they capped enrollment just as they fought raising the caps on enrollment in the Milwaukee Choice Program.

The compromise legislation that just passed allows parents to move their children to another school district under the open enrollment program year-round provided the resident school district agrees it is in the child’s best interests. However, if the parents are unable to get the approval of the resident school district, they can appeal to the state Department of Public Instruction whose determination of what is in the child’s best interests would be final.

As a parent of two children in elementary school I understand the need for options. I went through a situation myself when it was no longer in my children’s best interests to continue in our ‘home’ public school district after it became clear that my newspaper columns for the Waukesha Freeman had made some unprofessional teachers hostile toward my kids.

Unfortunately I was not made aware of the situation until well after the open enrollment period had ended. It was too late for us to consider an online charter school in another district or switching my oldest son to a neighboring district. There was no way I could allow my children to be deprived of a proper education with parental involvement in their activities, so I had to make the decision to switch them to a private school. I might have made a different decision had those options been available to me at the time. Thank heavens we were able to afford it.

We can all imagine other scenarios under which a parent may discover, at an inconvenient time for the school bureaucrats, that the school system is inadequate for their child. For example, a child may find that the district’s reading program is incompatible with the child’s needs. While it may work for other children, for some reason it doesn’t work for that child, and the parents discover that it isn’t working after the school year has started. Wouldn’t it be preferable to move that child as soon as possible into a district that has a reading program more tailored to that child’s needs?

Before the passage of SB2, parents would have to wait until the following February to pursue other public school options for their kids, and would have to wait until the following September before their child would get into a new public school.

Thanks to SB2, students will no longer be able to be held captive by arcane regulations or an occasional inconsiderate administrator.

This is at the heart of the school choice movement—giving parents the ability to make the proper educational choices for their children.

There is still work to be done when it comes to educational choice. Just last week the National Alliance for Charter Public Schools ranked Wisconsin 36 out of the 42 states with public charter school laws. Wisconsin was faulted limiting the authorizers of public charter schools to local school boards and a few universities. They suggested Wisconsin needs a board that can authorize charter schools statewide.

However, the latest expansion of public school choice enrollment statewide, year wide is welcome news for parents looking for the best educational opportunities for their children. How fitting that this news came during School Choice Week. Kudos to Governor Walker, who is poised to sign SB2, and to members of both parties to voted for this reform.