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Wisconsin Assembly Republicans hope to pass school accountability bill quickly

Wisconsin Assembly Republicans hope to pass school accountability bill quickly

Assembly Republicans hope to pass a school accountability bill by the end of January, Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Wednesday.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, and Jessie Rodriguez, R-Franklin, is the Assembly's first for the 2015-16 session. 

While it's commonly referred to as a school accountability bill, Vos said the lawmakers behind it see it as a school improvement effort.

The bill would replace the existing accountability rules with an academic review system, created and overseen by a 13-member board. Seven positions would be filled by the state Department of Public Instruction, including one held by the state superintendent. The governor would be allowed two appointees, and the Senate majority leader, Senate minority leader, Assembly speaker and Assembly minority leader would be given one each. The board's members would serve staggered four-year terms and meet at least twice per year.

The board would oversee public schools, independent charter schools and private voucher schools and evaluate their academic progress. Schools receiving a "D" or "F" grade for three consecutive years would face consequences and excelling schools could be awarded with incentives.

The bill would also allow the board to approve three alternative tests whose results would inform the compilation of those school report cards.

Schools pegged for persistent low performance would be required to develop a plan for improvement and would be given four years to make progress. 

The bill would allow public schools to be converted to independent charters if they failed to improve over the four-year period, and would prevent private voucher schools from taking new voucher students if they failed to improve.

Vos said the ability to convert public schools to independent charter schools makes the bill "tougher on the choice schools and charter schools than it is on public schools," but said the measure's goal is to ensure all schools receiving taxpayer dollars are treated the same way.

Because no action is taken until the third consecutive poor performance, no schools would face sanctions until the 2017-18 school year.

Thiesfeldt said that gives schools plenty of time to prepare.

"There’s significant time ... that allows them to do a full examination of what it is they’re doing and make the necessary changes and try to get some improvement for students and their families," Thiesfeldt said.

The goal of the proposal, Vos said, is that once the report cards are in place for a few years, no school in Wisconsin will be failing.

"We want every child to have a quality education," Rodriguez said, adding the bill gives schools the opportunity to improve themselves and enough time to make those improvements.

GOP lawmakers said they hope the bill will attract bipartisan support, but some Democratic lawmakers and groups on the left are calling the motives behind the bill into question, pointing out the significant spending by pro-voucher groups on Republican campaigns.

American Federation for Children, an advocacy group that spends heavily in favor of school choice, spent nearly $1 million on Wisconsin races in 2014 and has spent more than $4.5 million since 2010 to elect pro-voucher candidates. According to data compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, pro-voucher groups funneled $10 million into state elections between 2003 and 2012. 

Most AFC ads didn't mention school choice at all and in the case of the 54th Assembly District, outspent both candidates in the race.

"For far too long, Wisconsin’s children and families have been betrayed by Republican legislators who have let unaccountable private voucher schools run rampant with waste, fraud, and abuse of our money," said Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, who serves on the Assembly Education Committee. "Given the massive amount of money funneled from the pro-school privatization lobby to Republican legislators, l am afraid that we will see yet another effort to decimate our local public schools and allow unaccountable private voucher schools to play by a substandard set of rules."

The liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now pointed specifically to the bill's provisions governing appointments to the academic review board.

The bill requires the DPI and Assembly minority leader to appoint representatives from "2R" private charter schools. OWN executive director Scot Ross said that requirement suggests the measure is designed to benefit pro-voucher interests.

"Republicans are stacking the deck to protect the privatization industry that's spent millions of dollars to get them elected, instead of protecting kids, schools and taxpayers from these unaccountable profiteers," Ross said.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said the bill falls short in a few important areas.

Lawmakers share a professed goal of holding taxpayer-funded schools accountable, Barca said, adding he hopes both parties can find common ground to protect both students and taxpayers.

Senate Democrats announced on Wednesday that they will introduce legislation aimed specifically at accountability for voucher schools.

The legislation, introduced by Sens. Nikiya Harris Dodd, D-Milwaukee and Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, would require background checks for teachers and administrators, graduation standards, licensed teachers and compliance with open records law.

"Whether it is turning a blind eye to allegations of disgraceful treatment of students with disabilities, or ignoring gross instances of fraud and financial mismanagement of public dollars, Wisconsin Republicans continue to display a pattern of putting campaign contributors ahead of our kid’s classrooms," Larson said in a statement. "Access to quality education is a freedom and right that every child deserves. To that end, my Democratic colleagues and I will keep fighting to ensure that Wisconsin’s educational investments are in an accountable, discrimination-free system so that every child can obtain the knowledge and skills to succeed in life."

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

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