Education Committee Chairmen Offer Accountability Program for Wisconsin’s Voucher Schools

MacIver News Service | August 14, 2013

[Madison, Wisc…] This year, Wisconsin took its voucher program statewide. Now, schools that accept these voucher students may have to stand up to additional state scrutiny through the state’s school report card program.

Senator Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Representative Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake) announced on Wednesday that new accountability measures would be put in place to gauge how students are performing in the state’s voucher schools. The two legislators are the leaders of the Education Committees in their respective branches. The plan would use a modified version of the state’s existing school report card program to impact how all schools – including traditional public schools and charter schools – are operated in Wisconsin.

“This bill has been two years in the making,” said Kestell. “We worked closely with all stakeholders to develop a system that is reliable and fair to all different types of schools.”

This plan would use 2014-2015 report card data to begin analyzing school data heading into the 2015-2016 school year. These report cards would be based on the current institutional accountability program, but they would have several significant changes that Olsen and Kestell are banking on to improve the grading system. The categories by which schools are graded would be altered and expanded to five different metrics, though they share several similarities with the metrics that currently exist.

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Schools that fall into the lowest scoring category – “Fails to Meet Expectations,” which is the equivalent of a “F” grade on a five category A-F scale – will be subject to state-led penalties. Voucher schools that earn this grade in three straight years would have to improve their grade in the next three school years or face expulsion from the program. Charter schools that befall the same fate would have to work out a remediation plan with their school board and then be forced to improve their scores or lose their charter. Traditional public schools would also feel the heat from this program – if they post three straight failing grades and fail to improve in the three following years, they’ll either be shut down or turned into a charter school.

This proposed legislation would have a significant impact for all schools in Wisconsin. The addition of value-added growth data will help parents better understand how much a student learns in the classroom over the course of a given year. Current testing standards, which only measure a student’s knowledge during a week in October, provide a myopic viewpoint that fails to take into account if a student is playing catch-up or if a teacher is making progress in a challenging environment.

Opponents who claimed that these schools had few measures in place to determine if students were growing had hotly debated the accountability of these programs. However, those arguments ignored that parents had the control to choose these schools in the first place and pull their children out of the program if they weren’t satisfied. Recent adoptions of state-based WSAS testing also helped keep these schools to similar standards as traditional public schools in Wisconsin.

If Senator Olsen and Representative Kestell’s plans go through, these institutions will have even more measures to gauge student progress in their schools. They’ll also have direct consequences to accompany any low grades they could receive. Can this program be implemented in the state’s private institutions without significantly altering the autonomy that makes them a viable alternative for voucher families? Will the penalties for low grades be strong enough to spur improvement across all levels of publicly-funded K-12 education? These are the questions that the educationally-based legislators behind the bill will have to face when the state legislature returns this fall to push these accountability measures towards becoming Wisconsin law.

See the press release from Olsen and Kestell here.