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Wisconsin has 244 charter schools, seventh-most in the country. Most have been approved by a local school board.

Now Gov. Scott Walker wants to expand the footprint of independent charter schools — those not authorized by locally elected school board members.

Walker’s 2015-17 spending plan includes creation of a state board attached to the Department of Public Instruction that would approve independent charter school authorizers anywhere in the state. The budget would allow governing boards that open charter schools to open more schools so long as the first school governed by their initial contract showed high academic performance.

William Haft, vice president of authorizer development at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said he was unaware of another state that has a board with the sole purpose of approving authorizers of independent charter schools.

A 2013 report by the group found 15 states with a statewide board that oversaw charter schools’ progress and approved charters.

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said the board would provide more educational options for families and students.

“As you know, Gov. Walker’s overall goal is to help ensure every child, regardless of zip code, has access to a great education,” she said.

But the proposal has raised questions among some educators worried that it would lead to a raft of new independent charters. The proposal also lifts geographic limitations on independent charter schools, and allows students in districts of more than 4,000 students and at least two low-performing schools to attend an independent charter school without the approval of the district’s school board.

Julie Mead, a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at UW-Madison, said the proposal would diminish local control over the creation of charter schools.

“That charter authorizer is without accountability, if you will, to the voter in any way,” she said. “And so why would we want to do that? That’s what I would like explained to me. Why would that be a good thing for the state of Wisconsin? Honestly, I can’t fathom what the justification would be other than if I’m one of the big chains (of charter schools) that wants leverage into Wisconsin.”

Madison School Board member Ed Hughes wrote against the proposal on his education blog last week, saying the proposal allows new authorizers to “operate with a free hand in the state’s largest urban areas.”

Walker included a similar proposal in his 2013-15 budget but it was pulled out. Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, also has proposed similar legislation in the past. She said in an interview Tuesday that more communities than Milwaukee and Racine should have the option of an independent charter school.

She pointed to Madison Preparatory Academy, an independent charter school proposed by the Urban League of Greater Madison geared toward low-income, minority students that was voted down by the Madison School Board in 2011.

“In some cases, there will be opportunities where school boards say, ‘No, we don’t want that,’ as Madison did, and it seems there should be another option for those families,” Darling said.

Charter school landscape

Of the charter schools in Wisconsin, just 23 are independent. State law allows just four entities to authorize such a school: the Milwaukee City Council, UW-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College and UW-Parkside, and the students must live near those areas.

The schools receive $8,075 per student, which comes from a proportionate reduction to the state’s general aid for public schools.

Under Walker’s proposal, the board would include the state superintendent of public instruction and members appointed by the governor and other legislators that would have the power to create new authorizers. The four entities currently with that power would no longer be able to approve new charter schools, under the proposal.

“Offering alternative schools is wonderful, that’s for sure,” said Maureen Sullivan, executive director of Woodlands School and Woodlands East School in Milwaukee, but “I think there are bigger issues in the state.”

Sullivan said it’s expensive for small charter schools to gather enough seed money to open, and the pool of grant money for those purposes is thinning. She said legislators should focus on bettering current schools rather than opening new ones.

“Maybe we need to work on those first before we start any more,” she said.

Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said the group favors charter schools, but not if they aren’t approved by local school boards. He said a side effect of this proposal, if passed, could be an incentive for private voucher schools to turn into independent charter schools because the per-student funding is more than the per-student funding for voucher schools, which is about $7,200 for students in elementary and middle schools. High schools receive more per student.

DPI spokesman John Johnson said the department opposes the proposal. Local school boards provide a layer of accountability for charter schools, he said. The department opposed the proposal made during the last round of budget talks for the 2013-15 budget, echoing Mead’s assertion that it erodes local control and also because an expansion could increase property taxes.

For every student that attends an independent charter school, Wisconsin school districts receive a proportional reduction in their school funding — regardless of where that student lives. Walker’s budget proposal does not provide more money for general school funding.

“This reduction can be made up only through increased property taxes in school districts around the state,” a DPI analysis of the last proposal said. Johnson said with less state aid coming to school districts, school boards may opt to increase the tax levy to reach revenue limits.

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