UPDATED: The Clash Over How to Fix Milwaukee’s Failing Public Schools to Take Center Stage in Madison

Sen. Olsen to Introduce Substitute Amendment for Accountability in Wisconsin Schools Thursday

Update: Thursday’s vote in the Senate Education Committee has been cancelled.

Update 2: Governor Scott Walker said Wednesday that he will push for the passage of an accountability bill in 2014.

January 28, 2014

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

[Madison, Wisc…] Last week, the Milwaukee Public School Board voted on a plan to fix some of their failing schools before the state can. However, upcoming legislation may take that issue out of their hands while state officials enforce their own school accountability program.

MPS officials met last Thursday to vote on a plan that would designate 25 of their 48 failing schools for intervention in an attempt to improve education within the district. These “Commitment” schools would have two options – either running under increased scrutiny and attention from the district in order to create better practices and more engaging coursework in the classroom, or partnering with a service provider to implement changes for students.

Neither MPS nor Superintendent Thornton have explicitly discussed the plan for the remaining 23 failing schools in the district.

Milwaukee’s approved plan appears to be an effort to jump the gun on a statewide initiative that has stalled over the past year. Wisconsin’s public schools have been long overdue for an accountability overhaul. That plan was set to go into effect after the state’s School Report Cards went into effect two years ago, but delays have kept legislators from tying any actual consequences to the 0-100 scorecards that every public school in Wisconsin now falls under.

Now, more than a year after Governor Scott Walker called for a viable accountability program for all schools in his 2013 State of the State address, stakeholders appear ready to push forward with a plan. Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake) are primed to introduce a substitute amendment that will take data from the School Report Cards and apply consequences to schools that fail to either post strong grades or improve over time. Unlike MPS’s plan, schools that are designated as consistently low performing would face being shutdown and rebuilt as a charter school rather than deal with more interventions.

Policy makers on both sides have yet to release the full details of their accountability programs. However, based on what’s been leaked so far, we have a good idea of what these proposals will call for. While both MPS and the state want to target and fix the lowest-performing schools, the two entities have different plans for getting there.

Here’s how the three plans – Wisconsin’s proposed legislation, the plan that MPS approved on January 23rd, and Superintendent Gregory Thornton’s original proposal – stack up against each other.

Accountability Table 12814.png

While MPS’s plan focuses more on interventions and rehabilitation, the state program would shut down chronically failing schools. Evidence suggests that the state’s plan may be more prudent. Intervention programs in Milwaukee haven’t just been unsuccessful in Wisconsin’s largest school district – they have churned out few success stories across the country.

Under Kestell and Olsen’s discussed program, schools that fail to show improvement would be shut down after three straight years of failing grades or five years of “D” or “F” grades. The state plan would rebuild these schools under the authority of charter schools that have demonstrated significantly better student achievement with a similar group of Milwaukee students. That latter plan fits the narrative that many states have seen when it comes to turnaround programs – that these efforts are often unsuccessful.

Update: According to sources, the Department of Public Instruction will have the ability to save schools from shutdown if these schools are able to demonstrate high value-added student growth.

The MacIver Institute will continue to report on these proposals as updates happen. There is plenty of time for these plans to evolve as they inch closer to becoming law. That means there are still several details that will need to be hashed out, including any interventions that the state will hand down for a first-year failing grade, how charter authorizers will contract with shut-down public schools, and other issues that are sure to be brought up as the legislation earns a public hearing. The Senate Education Committee is set to take up this bill on Thursday at 10 am.