As voucher school advocates in Wisconsin celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Milwaukee school choice program this week, an effort to pass a school accountability bill appears to be dead in the water.
But while Republican leadership had previously said an unlimited expansion of the voucher program was out of the question without an accountability bill, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, indicated last week that the expansion is still on the table.
"Do I think they're tied together? I really do in a lot of ways. Is it possible that we could do one without the other? It's possible," Vos said in a press conference. "I don't want to say it's an absolute, but I certainly think it would be easier if we had a vigorous school accountability system at the same time that we had a vigorous expansion of school choice."
Vos's comments came days after Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, said it was unlikely the Assembly and Senate could reach a deal on an accountability bill. Thiesfeldt, the chairman of the Assembly Education Committee and author of the Assembly version of the bill, said the Senate version was "a status quo bill with accountability in name only."
Notably, the Senate version did not include sanctions for poorly performing schools — a dealbreaker for Assembly Republicans.
In January, Vos declared school accountability a top priority.
"I want statewide school choice, I want every single child to have the best opportunity for them to go to a school that fits their needs," Vos said in March. "But if we don't have an accountability system, we're not gonna do statewide school choice."
Gov. Scott Walker's two-year budget calls for lifting caps on the statewide voucher program. The budget also includes its own accountability proposal and would ban use of the Smarter Balanced exams.
Scott Jensen, a former Assembly speaker and senior adviser for the pro-voucher Wisconsin Federation for Children, said in February that the planned voucher expansion was "part of a nationwide civil rights movement that empowers parents, serves students, and creates a more equal education system."
But opponents like the Wisconsin Education Association Council call the growth of vouchers in Wisconsin a "failed school privatization experiment."
"Poll after poll shows that Wisconsin opposes tax subsidies for unaccountable private schools. Report after report proves that public schools provide more opportunities and students there perform better than those in voucher schools," said WEAC president Betsy Kippers in a statement. "It makes no common sense to continue to expand government entitlements to a 25-year failed experiment. Instead, lawmakers should provide fair and sustainable funding that keeps up with inflation for the public schools that serve all children."
Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, called the program "the gold standard for failure and lack of accountability."
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are dismayed their own school accountability bill is going ignored by the Republican majority.
A bill introduced by Sen. Nikiya Harris Dodd, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Cross Plains, would require background checks for teachers and administrators, graduation standards, licensed teachers and compliance with open records law. It would also require schools be located in Wisconsin.
"It is disappointing that Republican leaders continue to block commonsense reforms to prevent waste, fraud and abuse in Gov. Walker’s taxpayer-subsidized voucher program," Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a statement. "Given that this issue was such a high-priority for legislators, I had hoped we would be able to find common ground, hold voucher schools more accountable and protect Wisconsin students and taxpayers."