School Accountability – Where Does Everyone Stand?

Legislators, Educational Groups Take Sides on SB 286

March 20, 2014

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The debate over accountability in Wisconsin’s publicly funded schools has quickly become the most talked-about subject in education as the 2013-2014 legislative session comes to a close. After two years of discussion, public hearings, legislative meetings, and rewrites, the fate of Governor Walker’s proposed accountability program will be decided in the coming days and educational stakeholders across the state are choosing their sides.

Two versions of the accountability bill currently exist. Senate Bill 286 would bring every school that educates students through public funding – traditional, charter, and voucher – under the umbrella of the state’s School Report Cards. That means that every one of these institutions would be subject to the same testing and grading protocols to create a uniform, apples-to-apples comparison of student performance throughout the state.

SB 286 carries no penalties for underperforming schools. It passed the Senate on a bipartisan 29-3 vote.

The second version of the accountability program goes much further than just grading schools. Assembly Substitute Amendment 1 (ASA 1) to Senate Bill 286 is an ambitious program that would apply sanctions to chronically bad schools. There are several reforms included in the package, but it appears the provision that any public school that earns “F” grades for three straight years will be forced to shut down or convert under the auspice of a high-performing charter school is the most controversial. ASA 1 also includes sanctions that effectively cut off enrollment for failing charter and voucher schools.

The debate now centers around which accountability system, if any, can garner enough votes to pass both houses of the legislature during the frenzied last-second rush towards the close of the 2014 session. SB 286 takes a wait-and-see approach to the state’s School Report Cards and pushes sanctions down the line. ASA 1 makes those sanctions clear and attaches consequences to poor performances.

It’s unclear which version will make it to Governor Walker’s desk by the April deadline. The Governor had called for an accountability program for all schools in his 2013 State of the State address, but has had few comments on these latest developments in the accountability debate.

On Wednesday, several educational stakeholders issued public statements showing their support or opposition for ASA 1. The Department of Public Instruction, the School Administrators Alliance, and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards spoke out against the substitute amendment. While these groups applauded some changes to ASA 1 — the removal of A-F grading system, inclusion of a provision to compel all schools to use a single State Assessment System, and changes that broaden the charter school authorization language — they still had several, very similar, concerns that kept them from supporting the bill. These concerns include:

  • Using a legislative “trigger” to allow defined sanctions to take effect in failing schools.
  • Enacting a plan to remove ineffective teachers from low-performing schools that limits local control and may be seen as a barrier for high-performing teachers to move to these schools.
  • Having a separate, parallel report card for private schools that enroll voucher students.
  • Using a binary system for failing schools, forcing them to either shut down or rebuild as a charter program – which could create problems in the state’s rural districts where finding other local schools may be difficult.

School Choice Wisconsin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that it would like to see further changes to ASA 1.

The American Federation for Children was on the other side of that debate, praising ASA 1 for providing parents with a transparent and easy-to-understand accountability program. They lauded the use of value-added growth and real outcomes to deter bad schools in their statement of support on Wednesday.

Legislatively, it is even more complicated. While Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) is the champion behind ASA 1, he doesn’t even have the support of the Assembly Education Committee Chairman. Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake) co-authored an accountability plan that was similar to ASA 1 before scaling it back into what became SB 286. This week, Kestell publicly advised against taking up ASA 1 in the Assembly. He reasoned that a lack of support in the Senate would eventually kill the bill, leaving legislators with no accountability plan to pass which he believes will lead Republicans to “get clobbered across the state on this issue.”

Speaker Robin Vos has said for months that he wants the Assembly to vote on a broader accountability measure this session and it appears that vote will come Thursday. Just this past week, Speaker Vos wrote in a column on the need for school accountability published in the Racine Journal Times that we must “help our schools improve and underperforming schools need reasonable consequences, too.”

The Speaker may get the Assembly vote on school accountability that he has been pushing for but the amended bill may have no chance of passing the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) suggested that his chamber is happy with the bill in its current form. “Senate Republicans are happy with the version that was passed out of our house several weeks ago, and adding sanction language to the bill will make it tough to get through our house,” said Fitzgerald. “We will take a look at it when it comes over, but I would prefer that the Assembly just concur in the bipartisan bill that we sent over.

We’ll have more on this story as it unfolds Thursday. For up to the minute live updates, be sure to follow the MacIver Institute on Twitter at @MacIverWisc.