Charter school expansion bill draws opposition

  • Article by: SCOTT BAUER
  • Associated Press
  • January 9, 2014 - 1:05 PM

MADISON, Wis. — Making it easier to open independently operating charter schools drew support Thursday from national and local groups that have unsuccessfully tried to open such schools in Wisconsin, but opponents argued the change would harm existing public schools.

Independent charter schools are public schools that operate like private businesses, don't employ unionized teachers or staff and do not have to answer to school boards. Supporters view them as a vital alternative to public schools because they have more flexibility in what is taught and staffing.

The bill — which would dramatically rework the charter school landscape in Wisconsin — is sponsored mostly by conservative Republicans from suburban Milwaukee and backed by the statewide chamber of commerce. It was introduced in December and quickly scheduled for a public hearing before the Assembly Urban Education Committee.

It comes as Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he wants to pass some type of charter school bill this year. Supporters of the bill being considered Thursday hope it will clear the Assembly and put pressure on the Senate to follow suit.

Backers, including local and national charter school groups, argue that current law makes it too difficult to open charter schools that could provide innovative alternatives to struggling public schools.

"Let's shake up the status quo and keep innovating," said bill sponsor Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield. "The status quo is not acceptable."

Groups representing Wisconsin public school teachers, board members, administrators and business officials, as well as state Superintendent Tony Evers, oppose the bill. They argue it would siphon money from public schools, allow statewide expansion of independent charter schools, eliminate geographic limitations on attendance and local school board oversight, as well as jeopardize federal funding of currently operating charter schools.

A coalition of supporters released a statement say the bill wouldn't result in a proliferation of charter schools, but instead provide the option in areas of the state where there is a need and interest. The coalition includes the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the American Federation for Children, the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association, Milwaukee Charter School Advocates, National Heritage Academies and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

Under current law, there are two ways to authorize charter schools. They can be created by public school districts or by four outside entities: the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside in Racine, the Milwaukee Area Technical College, and the city of Milwaukee.

The vast majority of charter schools currently operating in the state — 189 out of 243 — are authorized by public schools. About 43,500 students attend charter schools.

Under the bill, those who could authorize independent charter schools would expand to include all four-year and two-year University of Wisconsin System institutions, technical college boards and all of the state's regional educational service agencies.

That change would likely result in independent charter schools spreading statewide, allow students to attend any charter school they wish no matter where they live, and remove oversight by local school boards.

The proposal would also eliminate the charter school designation for those created by school districts and instead label them as magnet schools. District-created charter schools are operated by those districts and staffed by district employees.

While support for the bill largely broke down along party lines, one Republican raised concerns Thursday.

Rep. Steve Kestell, a Republican member of the panel that heard the bill and also chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, said the Legislature shouldn't make major decisions about education policy without an analysis of the financial impacts, which had not been done.

"What I'm talking about is cold, hard numbers," he said.

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