Comprehensive School Accountability Appears Dead For Session – Is Scaled Back Compromise In The Works?

Will Parents Ultimately Sanction Bad Schools Instead of the State?

UPDATE: SB 286, which includes grades for all publicly-funded schools, but not sanctions for chronically bad ones, passed through the Wisconsin State Senate on Tuesday behind a bipartisan 29-3 vote.

February 17, 2014

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

After a long week of hearings and many hours of discussion, it appears an ambitious school accountability proposal for Wisconsin’s schools is dead. Instead, expanded report cards for the state’s voucher schools – report cards without any state sanctions for failing grades – may be the only provision that can pass both houses this year.

Both proposals received more than 12 hours of public testimony and deliberation this week before the Assembly and Senate Education Committees. The original, more com-prehensive Assembly accountability plan, which would force failing schools to shut down, garnered little public support during a hearing Wednesday. Conversely, the limited Senate plan, which carries no state-driven penalties for failing schools or even A-F grades, passed through committee on an 8-1 vote.

Assembly Bill 379 was brought to a public hearing after Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) authored an extensive substitute amendment. That bill would grade all of Wisconsin’s publicly funded schools on an A-F scale and force schools that earn three straight “F” grades to shut down and reopen as independent charter schools. AB 379 would also create an Accountability Council to monitor the report cards and school sanctions. Those provisions brought several educa-tional stakeholders to the Capitol to testify. Not a single person registered in favor of the bill.

However, a fallback option may have passed through the Senate Education Committee the following day. Legislators approved a vastly different accountability program that focuses on expanding the scope of the state’s report cards behind bipartisan support on an 8-1 vote. SB 286 started as a broader accountability bill that would sanction and shut down failing schools, similar to AB 379. Those aspects were dropped out of the legisla-tion as the bill went through no fewer than seven rewrites over the past year. The current version of this bill still deals with institutional grades, but is much less ambitious.

SB 286 will require all publicly funded students to have a unique identifier and be part of the state’s School Report Card system by the 2015-2016 school year. This would mean that all schools – traditional public, charter, and voucher – would be part of the state’s grading system. These students would also be tracked over the course of the year, and their educational careers, in order to create robust student growth data by which legisla-tors, parents, and students could better understand and track the value of their education. That unique identifier will be completely confidential.

With AB 379 struggling to gain support, SB 286 may be the only accountability plan that Wisconsin gets in 2014 – and it doesn’t include any state-mandated sanctions or conse-quences for failing schools. It will, however, allow Wisconsin citizens to understand how publicly-funded students are doing at all schools on an expedited timeline. That will shift the onus of accountability from the state to parents when it comes to choosing a school. If the state does not have the power to close failing schools, it will be up to parents to de-termine if a change is needed for their child.

Accountability wasn’t the only educational reform on the docket this pass week. Both committees heard a proposal that would put additional regulations on private schools that want to enter state voucher programs. SB 584 and AB 748, authored by Rep. Jessie Rod-riguez (R-Franklin) and Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), would ensure that schools that want to be eligible to enroll voucher students have at least a year of operational expe-rience and no fewer than 40 students over two grades in their classrooms. This initiative was spurred in part by the closure of LifeSkills Academy in Milwaukee earlier this year. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle appeared to be in favor of the legislation.

Legislators in the Senate also heard testimony on the creation of a special needs scholar-ship program. These scholarships would only be available for exceptional students who have been denied an open enrollment transfer to the school of their choice. Thursday’s testimony featured parents who both supported and opposed the measure. See the op-ed the parents in favor of the proposal wrote earlier this month here. A similar scholarship program had been included in early drafts of the 2013-2015 Wisconsin State Budget, but ultimately failed to become law.

While the Legislature seems poised to act on school accountability, the earlier, more am-bitious legislation seems to be stalling under pressure from every sector of the education establishment. At this time, the Legislature seems unlikely to take action that will lead to mandated consequences for failing report card scores. Without the votes to move a com-prehensive package, expedited report cards for all schools may be the only reform to pass in 2014, leaving accountability once again ultimately in the hands of Wisconsin parents.