Gov. Walker to Propose Bold, Comprehensive Education Reform in Budget

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

This week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker unveiled the bulk of his plans for public education for the 2013-2015 budget cycle. Walker’s budget will call for nearly $200 million in additional state funding for K-12 public schools across Wisconsin. However, the announcement that he’ll look to expand school vouchers throughout the state – including to low-performing districts and from border-to-border for special needs students – will be the headliner as the budget moves through the legislative process.

In an interview with the Associated Press released Monday, the Governor announced plans to expand the state’s voucher programs from their existing locations in Milwaukee and Racine. This expansion would use DPI’s School Report Cards to identify eligible school districts that would be opened to greater school choice. These districts would have to A) have two or more schools in their system that earned “D” or “F” grades and B) have more than 4,000 students enrolled in K-12 schools. Enrollment in these voucher programs would be capped at 500 students in 2014 and 1,000 in 2015 statewide.

Currently, 11 districts would qualify for this reform; Milwaukee, Racine, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, Waukesha, Fond du Lac, Sheboygan, Superior, West Allis, and Beloit. Implementing this system would put major pressure on these districts to improve their lowest performing schools in order to retain students.

Another major piece of Walker’s school choice reform is the second-year funding expansion for the state’s voucher programs. One of the biggest problems that existing school choice programs face in Wisconsin was a lack of funding at the per-student level. While schools in Milwaukee received over $15,000 per student this school year, Milwaukee Parental Choice Program participants received just $6,442.

That wasn’t an isolated case. Choice students have had their funding essentially frozen since 2005. While voucher schools worked out ways to operate on that tight budget, MPS schools saw their per-student funding increase. In 1998-1999, Milwaukee classrooms received $8,748 for each pupil. By 2010-2011, this had risen to $15,447 according to DPI data. That includes a local property tax share that more than doubled over that 12-year span.

This per-pupil raise doesn’t put voucher schools on MPS’s level. In fact, it doesn’t even get these schools within 60 percent of the district’s funding standards. What it does do, however, is give these schools additional opportunities when it comes to operating effectively. This bifurcated funding model will help high schools adapt to the rising costs of educating teenage students on a class-by-class basis.

High schools, with approximately $7,856 in funding for each student, will now have the ability to provide more for their students, focusing less on fundraising and more on the classroom. The same goes for elementary and middle schools. These schools, which have fewer expenses than high schools but have still struggled to make ends meet, will now have about $7,050 to work with for each child in their desks.

This is a move that should help improve the quality of voucher schools by helping to close the gap between MPS and MPCP funding. That divide is still significant – there’s about a $7,000 difference for each student – but it’s a move that will allow the program to continue to save the state millions in funding each year while giving choice schools greater resources to commit to their classrooms.

Of course, the expansion of school choice into districts that have failing schools is a promising reform as well. Potential voucher programs in cities like Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, and Waukesha will increase the number of high-quality schools for students and families. It will give parents more options in the quest to find the education that best fits their children. It will give schools that are amongst the lowest performing in the state an extra impetus to improve. While this may be a controversial choice, the bottom line here is that students – and families – will benefit.

Walker’s announcement regarding special needs vouchers will ensure that parents of students with exceptional needs won’t be left out. The Governor announced that he’ll set aside $21 million to create a modest special needs scholarship program to help pair students who need extra care in the classroom with the environment that fits them the best.

The news of a special needs scholarship program will be possibly the most hotly contest piece of Walker’s education reform, but it’s not unprecedented. Wisconsin, the birthplace of modern school choice, will now take a page from other states that have pioneered a system in which exceptional students have more freedom to pick a school that best meets their needs. Florida, a state where reforms like the Read to Lead and School Report Card initiatives have come from, will also stand as a key example for Wisconsin in this regard as well.

The Sunshine State’s McKay Scholarship program is the largest special needs voucher program in the country. It helps pair over 24,000 children with the schools their parents believe serves them the best each year. This reform truly empowers parents and families and will help to supplement the special needs education provided by public schools across the state.

Walker’s plan will also pour more money into the state’s technical colleges, data collection for teachers and students, and other accountability measures. The largest budget increase in 2013-2015 will be a two-year raise in state funding for public schools. Under Walker’s plan, K-12 public schools will receive nearly $43 million in 2014 and $86.3 million in 2015. This raise, in hand with the cost saving measures of Act 10, should help local districts create balanced budgets while retaining local autonomy for the foreseeable future.

As a result, voucher schools won’t be the only institutions seeing a funding increase in this latest budget. Charter schools will see an increase as well, though the increase will only raise per-student funding to approximately $7,850. That means that these schools will continue to lag behind their traditional counterparts in terms of state funds.

That wasn’t the only major funding announcement that will affect the state’s K-12 schools. In addition to expanding school choice, Walker is seeking to expand performance-based financial incentives for public school districts.

Low-performing schools will have more opportunities to improve – and strong schools will be rewarded for their hard work – behind the announced $64 million grant program for public schools. This funding pot will be doled out in part to the state’s highest performing institutions to the tune of around $54 million. This program will have strong ties to last session’s school accountability programs, as the state’s report cards will play a major role in determining which schools will have a shot at earning these grants.

That means that schools that earn “significantly exceeds expectations” or “exceeds expectations” grades – the equivalent of an “A” or “B” in an A-F grading system – will be eligible for a share of the $24 million that has been set aside in additional state funding. Another $34 million will be set aside for schools that improve on the state report card by three points or more in a single year. The neediest schools will also be eligible for grants if they are able to show a finite plan for improvement. They’ll have a shot at the remaining $10 million in state aid.

That pay-for-performance plan should help boost the state’s strongest schools, but working with the institutions that are chronically failing according to the spectrum of Wisconsin’s public schools may not produce the results the program is aiming for. Intervention programs that have been targeted at turning around bad schools have traditionally been unsuccessful here and across the United States. A Fordham Institute study titled Are Bad Schools Immortal? The Scarcity of Turnarounds and Shutdowns in Both Charter and District Sectors examined the impact that increased funding and attention have had at schools that fall into the bottom quartile of student achievement.

The study showed that very few schools, in both the charter and regular public school sector, actually met their turnaround goals. Across the 10 states examined in the report, only one percent of schools designated for federal School Improvement Grants (SIGs) showed significant progress in making their schools better. In Wisconsin, that number rose to two percent – one out of 53 schools. Another eight of these schools closed over the same time frame.

These Title I SIGs were unsuccessful at dragging schools up from the bottom in the past. Governor Walker is betting that a state-based funding program, which would be more personalized for Wisconsin’s schools, will do better. Unfortunately, past data suggests that this is going to be an arduous struggle and it may take a while for results to be seen. The one positive benefit going for the Badger State is that a new testing protocol that factors student growth in a much more comprehensive manner will give immediate feedback as to whether or not students in these schools are learning more, even if they fall below achievement standards.

Another step forward for Wisconsin will come in 2013-2014 when the state begins its migration from the WKCE to the ACT Testing Suite in high school. This proposal, which was championed by State Superintendent Tony Evers, is a practical and useful change that will better prepare the state’s high school students for college and beyond. The WKCE had become increasingly obsolete, and the ACT – a nationally accepted, reputable testing package – makes sense as its replacement. Tests in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade will track student progress while adhering to the accountability standards that Wisconsin must abide by in a post No Child Left Behind educational landscape. Changing tests will cost just $11.5 million for statewide implementation.

This eye on effectiveness and accountability applies to other reforms as well. Walker will fund a $13.5 million program spearheaded by DPI that will evaluate teachers and administrators across the state. That will bring the Educator Effectiveness system – a reform initiated in the 2011-2013 budget – full circle and allow parents, residents, and educators to better understand just how strong a school’s teachers and leadership actually are. This is a strong initiative that will go hand in hand with DPI’s school report cards in making Wisconsin’s public schools more transparent.

Sunday’s announcement also brought good news to a group of young teachers in Milwaukee. Walker’s administration announced that they would provide $1 million to expand Teach for America’s presence in the state’s largest district. TFA has earned high marks for their work in expansive urban districts across the country, and their Milwaukee program has grown after a rough start back in 2009. Currently, 90 TFA members reach over 6,000 students so far, and several alumni remain in education after serving in the corps.

Finally, many of the increases that will benefit the state’s K-12 schools will also be carried over to Wisconsin’s universities and technical colleges. The UW System will be given more than $110 million through a block grant over the next two years if this budget is passed. Another $8.85 million will go to the state’s technical colleges in the form of performance-based grants. This performance-based funding will increase from year to year and eventually make up 100 percent of all technical college funding from the state by 2020.

Governor Walker’s plan will no doubt come under fire from critics, and it will be imperative to view these changes and the plans behind them on their own merit. As my ‘Real Report Card’ research has shown, many Wisconsin schools need to do a better job of educating our children and preparing our children for the challenges after high school – college, technical school or an immediate career in the workforce. The governor’s announced reforms will help strengthen the state of education in Wisconsin by expanding educational options and then reinforcing – and hopefully replicating -practices that have been proven to work in Badger State classrooms.