Major Education Policy Reforms Loom as the Calendar Turns to 2014

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Common Core, School Accountability, and Other Education Policies to Take Center Stage in New Year

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

While 2014 may fly under the radar of Wisconsin politics after the tumult of 2011, the steps taken to change education in the Badger State will have a rippling effect that could change the future. Reforms like the implementation of Common Core standards, school accountability regulations, and a system that grades teachers will all share time in the state spotlight when education springs to the forefront of Wisconsin policy next year.

After a full year of debate and discussion, the state legislature will work to put policy in place revolving around Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and their place in state classrooms. Despite being approved back in 2010, legislators raised concerns late in 2012 over the nationally-normed standards, which had been approved in 46 states across the country at that point. The 2013-2015 budget required lawmakers to form a special committee on CCSS and to have four separate hearings across the state on the standards. Those hearings attracted testimony both for and against the new metrics and led to a series of recommendations from members of the Select Committee.

Though the recommendations from the Senate are still forthcoming, the Assembly’s report laid out eight steps that could become law this spring. CCSS remain mostly intact in these recommendations, but issues like student privacy, a review process for state standards in the future, and the rejection of future CCSS are all tackled. It will be up to lawmakers to determine which recommendations are translated into a final bill and whether or not these proposed regulations will have enough of an impact in order to become Wisconsin policy in 2014.

The issue of raising standards to ensure that students are prepared to take the next step is doubly important for the state’s public universities. The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents recently released a report that showed that nearly one in five UW-System freshmen need remedial coursework in either math or English just to catch up to their peers. This cache of unprepared students is hurting colleges all the way from Milwaukee to Superior. As a result, Wisconsin will have to examine its high school standards to better understand where these lapses between high school graduation and college preparedness are coming from.

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The expansion of high performing charter schools could be on the horizon in Wisconsin as well. Legislators in the Senate and Assembly have introduced bills that would allow independent charter schools to open new campuses outside of Milwaukee if they have a proven record of success that is significantly stronger than traditional public schools in the district. After years of failing to create a statewide authorizer, this program would allow non-instrumentality charter schools to expand beyond Milwaukee and Racine. Returns from the state’s School Report Cards and WKCE scores suggest that these schools are more effective when it comes to educating economically disadvantaged students than traditional public classrooms in both reading and math concepts.

Legislators will also be pushing forward with a plan to attach consequences to the School Report Cards that grade the state’s K-12 classrooms. Senate and Assembly Education Committee Chairmen Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake) co-authored a bill this fall that would provide penalties for chronically low-performing public, charter, and voucher schools. It would introduce stronger interventions for schools that fail to make the grade and shut down the ones that fail to improve over a six-year span.

However, that bill stalled over concerns about the timeline for disciplining bad schools and how much control the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) would have over the process. Instead of being heard this fall, the legislation was pushed off to the spring session. Now, after months of discussion and rewriting, lawmakers are expected to push forward with a modified version of the bill that is harsher on bad schools and creates more opportunities for replicating good ones.

That legislation may be the most important piece of education reform to hit Wisconsin in 2014. With methods in place to grade schools, the state must attach consequences and accountability to these reports. A system that will promote the best classrooms while leaving room to turn around or replace the consistently bad ones will be a major undertaking for state officials, but a necessary one for the future of Wisconsin children.

Those report cards would have a significant impact on the state’s voucher schools, but the growth of 2013’s statewide private school choice may be an even bigger change for these schools. The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program began operation for the 2013-2014 school year with 500 students. More than 2,400 students applied to fill those spots. Those applicants will have another shot to participate in the program when it expands to 1,000 students this fall, but it is clear that the current limits can’t satisfy the public demand. With this information in mind, legislators could begin discussing another expansion for the program’s student limits in 2014.

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The new year will be big for the Educator Effectiveness program as well. This system of evaluating and grading Wisconsin’s public school teachers will move out of its pilot years and into full implementation next fall. The reform was one of the key pieces of education reform introduced by Governor Scott Walker back in 2011. After two years of developing the framework behind the program, school districts were asked to make a decision this fall. Administrators were forced to choose between two approved programs – one run by the state through the DPI, and another created by CESA 6 – a regional venue made up of a cooperative consortium of educators and administrators in central Wisconsin.

The state will begin to see the effects of these choices this spring. It’s unknown whether or not the state’s schools will be able to support two separate systems for the same policy. Whichever program runs the smoothest and gains the most ground support in 2014 could end up standing alone as the state’s go-to system for grading educators in the Badger State.

Of course, the lasting effects of Act 10 will play a part this spring and summer as well. The Wisconsin State Supreme Court is expected to rule on District Court Judge Juan Colas’s ruling that had invalidated parts of the 2011 law and allowed Madison Teachers Inc. to collectively bargain for their latest contract. If that ruling is upheld, it would have a major impact on not only local funding in the classroom, but also teacher rulebooks and how much power locally-elected school boards will have over the institutions in their district.

While 2014 may be better known as another battleground year for health care and other political issues, educational stakeholders can expect a big year when it comes to K-12 policy in the Badger State. Accountability, standards, and Act 10 will all steal headlines as teachers and schools face state-authorized grades and, eventually, consequences tied to those results. The steps taken next spring will help to expose failing schools while promoting and replicating bad ones. They will also dictate the standards set for Wisconsin’s students – students that have fallen behind the global curve when it comes to math and science.

There will be a lot at stake in 2014. The policy changes that ripple through Wisconsin’s classrooms will shape the state’s future. And the education of a new generation of students will hang in the balance.