Joint Finance to Vote on Wide Range of Educational Accountability Measures on Wednesday

May 29, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst


Last week, members of the Senate and Assembly Education Committees heard more than four hours of compelling testimony over the implementation of Common Core State Standards in Wisconsin. On Wednesday, the Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) will vote on several aspects of public education that would work within these standards. This includes matters like school funding, how students are measured by state testing, an increase in voucher amounts for students in the state’s school choice programs, and an expansion of charter school law.

However, the biggest piece of Wednesday’s potential legislation is something that has been reverberating throughout Wisconsin since it was introduced in Governor Scott Walker’s 2013-2015 state budget – a large expansion of the state’s school voucher program.

Walker’s plan calls for the state to use its school report cards to identify struggling districts – that is, districts that have more than 4,000 students and two or more schools that earned “Meets Few Expectations” or “Fails to Meet Expectations” grades on DPI’s metric. Those two grades would be the equivalent of a “D” or a “F” on a A-F grading scale. Families in these districts that meet those requirements would be eligible to use state-funded vouchers to attend approved and accredited private schools. This program, which would be capped over the next two years, would work in the same way that the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Racine currently operate.

This proposed expansion has drawn most of the attention revolving around the 2013-2015 budget. Proponents praise the plan as a method to provide more options for students that are stuck in failing schools and a way to empower parents outside of Milwaukee and Racine. Opponents argue that this plan diverts money from public schools, even though declining enrollment counts ensure that per-pupil funding will go up when schools earn money for students that they won’t be educating that year. These arguments will likely rear their heads throughout the course of Wednesday’s hearing.

The JFC will take up several other educational issues this week, including the adoption of tests that will change how student achievement and growth is measured throughout the state and a system that will grade educators while creating a database of effective teaching methods. Both of these measures were instrumental in the state’s waiver to advance beyond federal No Child Left Behind Regulations.

The most notable policy that relates to Common Core is the administration of SMARTER Balanced assessments for students in grades 3-8 and ACT tests for high school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. These tests would replace the ineffective WKCE and are a major part of the state’s waiver to free Wisconsin schools of No Child Left Behind regulations. These programs would be field tested in 2013-2014 and moved to statewide implementation in the following year.

Bringing in these assessments will raise testing standards in Wisconsin. However, there may be some controversy surrounding their implementation. Adopting these tests will continue Wisconsin’s buy-in to national Common Core State Standards for instruction. The state had announced that it would join the 46 other states that currently adhere to these standards back in 2010, but the looming reform associated with these tests has made Common Core a hot topic amongst the education community.

This new testing mantra won’t apply solely to students, however. The JFC will vote on the introduction and application of a pair of programs that will grade schools and teachers and inform future policy decisions as a result. The Educator Effectiveness program, which was spearheaded in 2011 and designed by a group of educational stakeholders ranging from the Governor’s office to members of WEAC, will use a combination of classroom evaluations and student test results to examine how much value a teacher adds to his or her classroom and will promote best practices across Wisconsin.

The state’s proposed School Performance Incentive Grants will go a step further, rewarding high-performing schools with additional state funding. The Governor set aside $24 million to be appropriated to schools that are excelling when it comes to educating students. Another $30 million would go to schools that demonstrated marked improvement on the state’s report cards, and $10 million would be directed to the state’s lowest-performing institutions. If approved, this program would go into effect for the 2014-2015 school year.

Wednesday’s debate will also branch out to another area of the public school family – charter schools. Walker’s budget includes provisions that would set up a charter school oversight board. This group would give prospective schools and their operators a second avenue for establishment beyond their local school boards. This would mean greater opportunities for independent charter schools – a group that has outperformed traditional public schools and instrumentality charter schools on school report cards and WSAS testing in Milwaukee.

The creation of an oversight board would help broaden the state’s educational horizons and give successful schools like Rocketship Academies and KIPP Public Charter Schools a more viable path to expand throughout the Badger State. These schools have used top-to-bottom reform to create diverse and dynamic educational environments. However, issues like continued oversight and the ability to govern these institutions will lead to plenty of debate on the issue on Wednesday.

Wednesday’s Joint Finance hearing promises to be rich with debate as some of the most contested pieces of Governor Walker’s budget will come to the forefront. While the voucher expansion issue will be the headliner, there are several different reforms that will have major effects in classrooms across Wisconsin. The future of education reform will be taken up by a group of 16 legislators this week, and their decisions could shape how teachers, students, families, and administrators address education in the Badger State for years to come.