School Choice Wisconsin: No Child Left Behind Waiver Puts Voucher, Charter Schools at Risk

MacIver News Service | Februrary 7, 2012

[Madison, Wisc…] Many educational leaders and legislators alike lauded Wisconsin’s waiver application for release from the federal No Child Left Behind program as a positive step forward for the state’s schools. However, not everyone is pleased with the opening stages of this new system of school accountability.

School Choice Wisconsin President Jim Bender was the most vocal critic of the waiver during last week’s public hearing. The waiver, he says, would allow the state to remove voucher schools from choice programs and seize power from charter school authorizers without giving them any chance for improvement.

“Unfortunately, the waiver released by DPI does not hold all schools accountable equally across all sectors, and details by which schools will be measured and held accountable are yet to be determined,” Bender testified Thursday. “If approved as written, the waiver would allow DPI to remove MPCP and PPSCP schools from the school choice programs and to supersede charter school authorizers that fell into the lowest five percent of persistently low performing schools that fail to improve and meet certain yet to be determined benchmarks within three years. On the other hand, public schools would be given a series of three-year time periods with several options to choose from to work toward improvement.”


The lack of specific language for both voucher and charter schools – the majority of which operate under very different guidelines from traditional public schools – is a concern for School Choice Wisconsin. It suggests that the waiver will increase the power that the state holds over choice schools. According to their research, this is something that has not been a piece of other states’ applications in areas where vouchers and tax-credit scholarships assist students.

The biggest issue for these schools, according to Bender, is a limited window for improvement. Regular public schools that are deemed lowest performing would be put on a rolling three-year intervention period in hopes of improvement. They would have no strict timeline for closure if changes cannot be made. Choice and charter schools would have only a three-year window before closure, and only one shot at improvement. The disparity between the two groups, testified Bender, is inherently unfair.

Whether or not these concerns will persist will depend on how the continuing development of DPI’s waiver shapes state mandates. The document presented on Thursday was a complex but ultimately preliminary approach to wean the state from federal oversight. While DPI’s tireless work on the effort created a strong base for reform, there’s still much work to be done. Input from legislators and other sources will continue to shape the waiver.

This legislation will be written over the next several weeks that addresses the concerns raised in Thursday’s hearing. It should reflect the universal theme of that hearing; that the waiver was a solid start but in need of improvement and greater specificity in its policies and terms. For Bender and School Choice Wisconsin, this will ideally include a level playing field for choice and charter schools.