School Accountability Bill Sees More Changes in New Assembly Version

A-F Grades Scrapped, Charter Conversions for Failing Schools Kept

March 13, 2014

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Weeks after a pared-down attempt to bring accountability to all Wisconsin public schools passed through the Senate, state legislators are trying to breathe new life into a plan that would tie significant sanctions to the state’s failing schools.

Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) is the driving force behind the latest attempt to attach consequences to poor performances for any school that educates Wisconsin’s publicly funded students. Substitute Amendment 1 (SA1) to Senate Bill 286 was submitted for introduction in the Legislature on Wednesday. That amendment would expand legislation that aims to have all publicly funded schools graded by the state’s School Report Cards by 2015. SA 1 would attach significant sanctions for failing schools. This amendment also scales back sanctions previously proposed in AB 379 that would have forced failing schools to convert to independent charter schools. Instead, these schools will be forced to either shut down entirely or convert to a charter model.

The new amendment has removed some of the policies that drew criticism in the Assembly Education Committee’s public hearing on February 12th. The proposed accountability system will no longer assign A-F grades for schools and would instead rely on the currently existing, five-category 0-100 point scale.

However, it retains some of the much-debated plans that would turn chronically failing traditional public schools that have shown no improvement over time to successful charter authorizers. Public schools that earn the equivalent of “F” grades for three straight years or earn no grade higher than a “D” in five straight years will be forced to either cease operations permanently or undergo a total reconfiguring under the administration of a high-performing charter school. This charter takeover would entail significant rebuilding, including the replacement of the school’s principal and several measures for evaluating staff members.

Charter schools that meet the same levels of failure will have their charters revoked. Voucher schools that do the same will be removed from the state’s school choice program and be ineligible to enroll any new students through vouchers in the future, though current voucher students will have the option to continue to enroll in these schools.

All schools will have the opportunity to be exempt from state sanctions if they can demonstrate, using University of Wisconsin Value-Added Research Center data, that they have achieved high value-added growth amongst their students. Additionally, any school that earns an “F” grade will have to seek out and maintain accreditation from a DPI-approved sponsor.

This program would take effect for the 2015-2016 school year. The first year of sanctions and rebuilding would then begin for the 2018-2019 session.

This bill goes well beyond the original text of SB 286, the accountability bill that passed through the Wisconsin State Senate two weeks ago on a bipartisan 29-3 vote. That legislation ensures that all students, whether in public, charter, or voucher schools, will take the same test and be counted in the state’s School Report Cards by the 2015-2016 school year. Private schools that receive voucher funding would be included in this accountability system. However, schools can choose to opt-in to state grading for the students in its classrooms that do not use a voucher to attend said school.

It’s still unclear whether or not this more comprehensive accountability program has the support needed to pass through the Wisconsin State Legislature.

One of the most controversial aspects of AB 379 was a provision that required the bottom five percent of Wisconsin’s public schools to automatically earn “F” grades. While that provision is still part of the accountability proposal, it is now slated to expire at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. Why this maligned aspect of the proposal was given a sunset date rather than removed entirely is unclear, but it is likely be a sticking point for legislators when the bill comes up for debate in the future. EDIT: This provision has been stripped in the latest version of the amendment. We apologize for the confusion.

With time running out on the 2013-2014 session, the fate of school accountability in Wisconsin is still up in the air. If legislators cannot come to terms on an ambitious plan aimed at fixing failing schools, then the fallback will be a grading system that brings every publicly funded student into focus. While that would help parents and citizens better understand their options, it would do little to spur fast-acting change in underperforming schools.