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Wis. Senate passes school accountability bill

  • Article by: SCOTT BAUER
  • Associated Press
  • February 18, 2014 - 4:25 PM

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin state Senate on Tuesday passed a limited school accountability bill that would not impose sanctions on poor performing public or private voucher schools, while the Assembly attempted to revive its proposal that would do just that.

Republicans, who control the Senate and Assembly, and public and private school advocates haven't been able to agree on how far to go with a school accountability bill. One of the main areas of disagreement has been whether to assign letter grades to schools and impose sanctions on those that fail to measure up.

It's not clear whether the Senate is interested in the broader Assembly bill, which was being rewritten and scheduled for its second public hearing in eight days on Wednesday.

The latest version wouldn't assign grades to schools, but if a public school is failing for three years it would be forced to close and re-open as a charter school. Failing private schools would be barred from accepting new students receiving taxpayer subsidized vouchers but could keep the students already enrolled.

"Let's just see if they get it through their house and then we'll see," said Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, sponsor of the narrower Senate bill that passed on a bipartisan 29-3 vote. Olsen's proposal would require any school that takes taxpayer money — public, charter and voucher — to report test scores and a variety of other data to the state for inclusion on report cards starting in the 2015 school year.

Having all schools report the same data will allow parents to make better choices, said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, during Senate debate.

"That's a huge step in the right direction," Darling said. "That's transparency for the taxpayers and transparency for the parents deciding where they want their children to go."

But Democratic opponents argued the bill doesn't go far enough to hold voucher schools accountable. Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, said voucher proponents will attempt to use the bill to argue for further expansion of the program, even though it doesn't have any consequences for low-performing vouchers.

"You get those schools reporting on the students and then guess what? Nothing," Lehman said. "You can continue with your bad school for years and years and years. We can watch the numbers be terrible, but you still get the taxpayer dollars."

Gov. Scott Walker has said passing a school accountability bill is one of his priorities, but he's been unable to bring lawmakers together on a deal that can get enough votes to pass. Walker has said that passing the more limited Senate bill was better than nothing, but he hoped something more substantive could be done.

If a deal can't be reached on something more expansive, Olsen said he could live with the Senate bill. He said no Republican senator said during a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday that they wanted to do more, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't.

"If we see people are on board with (the Assembly bill), we might make a little U-turn," Olsen said.

The sponsor of the more expansive Assembly bill, Republican Rep. Jim Steineke, said progress was being made in talks with public and private school advocates. Steineke said he didn't expect anyone to support the measure at Wednesday's hearing, but he also didn't think opposition would be as fierce.

"At the end of the day we'll have a bill that can pass both houses," Steineke said. The full Assembly will vote on the bill next month, he said.

Last year the Legislature agreed to expand vouchers statewide, beyond Milwaukee and Racine, with a 500-student enrollment cap. Next year the cap increases to 1,000 students, but supporters want that to be bigger or to be dropped entirely.

Under the current report cards, which include information from public schools only, schools are given a descriptor such as "meets expectations" or "exceeds expectations," rather than a letter grade.

That would not change under the Senate bill or the compromise being discussed, Olsen said.

The Democrats who voted against Olsen's bill in the Senate were Sens. Bob Wirch, of Pleasant Prairie, Jennifer Shilling, of La Crosse, and Jon Erpenbach, of Middleton.

© 2014 Star Tribune