Major Education Reforms Expected in 2015?

January 7, 2015

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

With the inauguration of Gov. Scott Walker and members of the Senate and Assembly behind us, the new legislative session is officially underway. Wisconsin’s lawmakers have a busy spring ahead of them as several issues are rising to the forefront of Badger State politics. One of the biggest pieces of that puzzle is the state of K-12 education.

Fortunately, past legislation and discussions have shed light on what’s in store for Wisconsin’s schools, teachers, administrators, and students. Here’s what we’re likely to see in Madison as 2015 roars into focus.

An Expansion of School Choice

Gov. 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.

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 ensure many families are not being restricted from access to high quality schools due to arbitrary participation limits. The number of student applications has exceeded the supply of available vouchers in every year that the PPSCP and WPCP have operated under these caps. With parents on board, an expansion of the statewide voucher programs appears to be a likely scenario for 2015.

Walker hasn’t provided many updates since the summer, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) suggested that removing the cap entirely might be an option.

“I continue to say that we have seen in other Midwestern states that if you remove the cap, eventually you are going to find what sea level is here in Wisconsin – how many seats would actually be applied for and then granted,” Fitzgerald told reporters on Monday.

Regardless of the scope of the expansion, the status of private school choice in Wisconsin will be a highly debated topic.

Real Consequences for Failing Schools

This may be the first piece of educational reform to grace headlines in 2015. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has suggested that a school accountability program will be “Assembly Bill 1” when the legislative session begins this January. In addition to the speaker’s comments, Fitzgerald has said an accountability bill is also a priority in the Senate.

That would be a departure from 2014, when legislators had to rally to pass a limited accountability program in the days before the lawmaking period ended.

Last session, lawmakers struggled to come to an agreement over what should be done about the state’s chronically underperforming schools. 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.

Vos is not the only legislator who is taking the lead on bringing greater accountability to schools. Sen. Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee) has taken up the task of drafting the Senate version of the bill. He is expected to release his legislation to the public early in January. Though the much-discussed accountability bill didn’t make an appearance in Walker’s inauguration speech, we can still expect to see this issue take precedence in the State Capitol in January.

A Long, Hard Look at Common Core

Gov. 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,” Walker said.

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

That’s helped stall the momentum behind the legislative movement to remove CCSS. Since local school districts dictate their own curricula, the state would have difficulty subverting that local control. Speaker Vos acknowledged as much in a discussion with the Wisconsin State Journal in December:

“We’re not necessarily going to repeal (Common Core) because they are standards adopted by DPI,” said Vos, referring to the state Department of Public Instruction. “If (school districts) like the standards, they can keep them. But I think we want to make sure that nobody feels compelled.”

Another Run at the 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.

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.

Another option that could benefit the state’s special needs students would be a modification to the funding behind the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. Legislators may look to raise the cap for the voucher amount in order to accommodate expensive-to-educate exceptional pupils. That would help schools offset the cost of enrolling special needs students while expanding the range of quality school options from which parents can choose.

Greater Equality for Independent Charter Schools

Wisconsin’s independent charter schools are essentially limited to Milwaukee. That’s unfortunate for students in the rest of the state because DPI data consistently shows that these independent public schools outperform their peer traditional schools in MPS.

Legislators will look to expand the reach of these schools while ensuring that they receive equitable funding. Currently, independent charters receive about 60 percent of the per-student revenue that their peers are given. Teachers in these schools don’t even have access to the state’s teacher pension program. These issues are something that lawmakers will take aim at this spring.

Creating more of these high-performing schools could come through several avenues. Since only the City of Milwaukee Common Council or a four-year University of Wisconsin campus can authorize these schools, legislators have attempted to create a board that would hear appeals from prospective charter schools from every corner of the state. While those efforts have been unsuccessful, it’s a piece of policy that may rise up again.

Additionally, the replication of quality schools – charters that meet certain benchmarks on the state’s School Report Cards – could also be taken up this spring. Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) had previously introduced legislation that would allow the stronger independent charters to expand to Milwaukee’s neighboring school districts. With another year of strong achievement numbers behind them, support may be growing for these non-traditional public schools.