What’s Next for K-12 Education in Wisconsin After the 2014 Elections?

The 2014 Wisconsin Governor’s Race is over, and Scott Walker has earned enough votes to lead the state for four more years. The biggest question he faces after a long campaign is a simple one; what’s next?

Four previous years of Walker’s policies have set the stage for his next four. A look back at the Governor’s educational work shows an emphasis on K-12 educational reform. In 2011 alone, the state expanded vouchers outside of Milwaukee’s city limits, introduced transparent systems for grading Wisconsin’s teachers and public schools, and placed a greater emphasis on literacy in early childhood education.

The Governor is expected to take a similarly aggressive approach when the state legislative session begins in January. Here’s a look at what may be in store for K-12 education in Wisconsin in the coming year.

An Expansion of School Choice?

Scott Walker and a Republican Assembly/Senate combination have overseen a pair of private school voucher expansions since 2010. The first brought added school options to Racine’s economically disadvantaged families through the Parental Private School Choice Program (PPSCP) in 2011. That program began with caps of 250 and 500 students in 2011-12 and 2012-13, respectively, before growing to an uncapped year this past fall. Participation in the program – which is limited only to students that did not attend private schools in the past – has more than doubled in the first three years of the PPSCP’s existence.

The second program is the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP), which was brought to life in 2013. Like the PPSCP, it faced limits in both student participation (500 pupils in 2013-14, 1,000 in 2014-15 and beyond) as well as income limits (185% of the federal poverty level). However, the similarities between the two programs don’t extend much farther.

The WPCP is limited to 25 schools statewide – only the schools that receive that most applications can enroll voucher students. Unlike the Racine program, there are no provisions in place that would eliminate the student participation limit. Also unlike Racine, there is no rule in place that precludes students who are already attending private schools from participating.

In all likelihood, the WPCP will be the model that Gov. Walker and the state legislature looks to expand. More than 3,400 students applied for 1,000 slots in the program last year. A list of 68 interested private schools was culled down to 26 due to current law restricting access to the WPCP. Legislators can point to this demand as an impetus to expand more educational options to Wisconsin’s families regardless of where they live.

Removing student and school caps would prevent many families from being restricted access from high quality schools due to arbitrary participation caps. The number of student applications has exceeded the supply of available vouchers in every year that the PPSCP and WPCP have operated under caps. With parents on board, an expansion of the statewide voucher programs appears to be a likely scenario for 2015.

Real Consequences for Failing Schools

Last session, lawmakers struggled to come to an agreement over what should be done about the state’s chronically underperforming schools. On Wednesday, Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos told reporters that a school accountability bill is a priority for Wisconsin in 2015. Legislators in both chambers have discussed and drafted bills to address this shortcoming through the summer and fall.

Recent legislation will require all schools that receive public funding – traditional, charter, and voucher institutions – to participate in the state’s School Report Cards by 2017. Policymakers will now have to figure out the rewards and consequences that the state will tie to these annual grades. Previous versions of the accountability bill have given chronically underperforming schools – schools that earn the equivalent of a “D” or “F” grade for three or more years – a brief window for turnaround before threatening them with closure or being rebuilt as public charter schools.

The emphasis here will not just fall on fixing broken schools. The legislature will also have an opportunity to identify Wisconsin’s strongest schools and examine ways to replicate them. Expect lawmakers to create a model that shortens the lifespan of bad schools and provides a blueprint for rebuilding local institutions based on the success of good ones. The only question now is whether internal debates derail this accountability program in a similar way that they did in 2014.

A Long, Hard Look at Common Core

Governor Walker does not like Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the nationally-normed baselines that raised Wisconsin’s K-12 educational benchmarks. On July 17 of this year, he called for action against CCSS in a brief but pointed press release:

Today, I call on the members of the State Legislature to pass a bill in early January to repeal Common Core and replace it with standards set by people in Wisconsin.

Up to this point, Gov. Walker had previously avoided making demonstrative statements in one direction or the other regarding the standards. Now, the pressure is on the WI State Legislature to act.

Repealing the controversial standards will take much more effort than a Gubernatorial edict. CCSS has been hailed by local educators and administrators who have praised the state’s new, higher, standards. More than 60 principals and superintendents flooded a Capitol hearing room last spring to testify in favor of CCSS. Those educational stakeholders also made a point to publicize the amount of effort and backtracking that a repeal would entail.

While the standards are going into place for the first time this school year, the decision to adopt them dates back to 2010. The state has invested countless hours into preparing local educators in the four-plus years that have followed. As such, earning the support needed for a repeal will be a difficult venture.

Several legislators had the chance to graft their own understandings regarding CCSS when the Select Committee on Common Core Standards held four public hearings across the state. Testimony in these meetings was split in terms of support and opposition for the K-12 enterprise. Expect several members of this committee, including Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) and Sen. Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee).

The Continuation of School Grades and the Launch of Teacher Grading

Gov. Walker began his tenure with three significant initiatives designed at improving educational outcomes throughout the state. The Read to Lead program took aim at early childhood literacy and emphasized stronger reading skills in grades K-3. The School Accountability Program gave the state the institutional report cards discussed above. The Educator Effectiveness (EE) program will grade teachers based on a combination of student growth and in-class observations to tell parents and administrators just how valuable their teachers are.

The 2014-15 school year will be a major one for EE. This marks the program’s first year of full implementation throughout Wisconsin. While the project has earned strong reviews both inside state borders and beyond, it will be up to the Department of Public Instruction to ensure that last year’s pilot program can be implemented in an efficient and consistent manner.

This could provide the opportunity for legislators to tie incentives and penalties to teacher performance in the near future – though it’s unclear if this issue will be taken up in 2015. It’s not a major leap to shift from a discussion on school accountability to one that revolves around teacher accountability. If Wisconsin’s EE program continues to be run smoothly and has a successful freshman year, it could become a hot topic in Madison this spring or next.

Another Run at Special Needs Scholarships?

Last year, Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) and Rep. John Jagler (R-Watertown) teamed up to introduce legislation that would offer parents of special needs students a chance to use a publicly-funded voucher to find the right school for their child. That bill never made it to their respective floors, but impassioned debates in committee hearings brought the issue to the forefront. 2015 will likely see another version of the bill on the state’s ledger; the question is how far it will go.

Sen. Vukmir has been a champion for special needs scholarships for years, but backlash from anti-voucher advocates have led to proposed programs that have become smaller and smaller in scope each year. Last year’s bill would have only applied to parents who had already been denied open enrollment opportunities from their local districts. While that did not fly, the Senator may find more support in a legislature that has more Republican members than it did the year prior. This could lead to a bolder special needs school choice proposal – and possibly even legislation that pulls from Florida’s expansive McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program.