MADISON, Wis. — Questions and answers about the Legislature's debate over measuring and reporting performance of public, private and charter school performance in Wisconsin:
Q: There's been a lot of talk about a school accountability bill in the Legislature, but don't we already have school report cards?
A: Yes. Report cards for all of Wisconsin's public schools and independent charter schools have been required for at least two years. And the Legislature last year passed a bill to require private schools that accept voucher students to submit a variety of data to eventually be included on the report cards.
New proposals this year include whether to assign letter grades to schools, whether to let private schools take a different test than those in public schools and whether to impose sanctions on schools deemed to be failing.
Who has the authority over the accountability system — the state Department of Public Instruction or perhaps one or more independent boards — is also part of the current debate.
Q: So what is the Legislature going to do?
A: That's unclear. Right now, there are two proposals, both sponsored by Republicans. The goal is to come up with a system to ensure that all schools receiving taxpayer money are effectively teaching students.
Under the Assembly version, all public, charter and private voucher schools would be assigned a letter grade based on lots of performance measures including test scores. Failing public schools that don't improve over a period of at least four years would be forced to convert into independent charter schools. Failing private schools would not be allowed to accept new voucher students, but existing students could remain.
The Senate version wouldn't impose sanctions on public schools, but would similarly not allow failing private schools to accept new voucher students. The Senate bill would not give schools a grade, but instead would put them into one of five performance categories.
The Assembly bill would have the state Department of Public Instruction oversee the accountability system. The Senate bill would create two new boards: one to oversee public and charter schools and one for private voucher schools.
The Assembly bill would allow for private schools to use up to four different standardized tests to measure student performance, while the Senate bill would allow all schools to take the same test. Under federal rules, public schools would have to use the state-chosen test.
Q: Wow, that's confusing. What's going to pass the Legislature?
A: Republicans control the Senate and Assembly, but they haven't agreed on what approach to take. Gov. Scott Walker has said he wants something to pass soon that gives parents information they need to make a choice about where to send their children to school.
Q: Who's for it and who's against it?
A: Hundreds of people showed up to testify on the Assembly bill Wednesday in a hearing expected to last into the evening. Nine groups that registered to lobby on the measure were opposed. None had registered in support by midday Wednesday. Those in opposition include the state Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin Association of School Administrators, superintendents from Milwaukee and Madison schools and the Wisconsin Education Association Council. Two advocates for private voucher schools, the American Federation for Children and School Choice Wisconsin, testified in support of parts of the bill, but didn't take a position because so much remains in flux.
Q: OK. So what happens next?
A: The Assembly Education Committee held a hearing on its proposal on Wednesday, and the Senate was expected to hold a hearing on its version by the end of the month. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he wants to vote on the Assembly bill this month, but it's not clear when the Senate may take action.