Despite changes, charter school expansion bill faces a headwind
SUSAN TROLLER | The Capital Times | firstname.lastname@example.org madison.com Posted: Tuesday, September 20, 2011
A bill to create a state-level charter school authorizing board is drawing skepticism from some Republicans in the Legislature.
A controversial bill that would create an independent, statewide authorizing board for charter schools is facing a tougher path now that Republicans have a razor thin 17-16 edge in the Wisconsin Senate. The legislation is designed to expand charter school choice in Wisconsin and to allow charters to be formed even in communities where they are not approved by local school districts.
Although the bill, introduced by Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, last spring, has been modified from its original form, the amended Senate Bill 22 still doesn’t pass muster with the Department of Public Instruction. Perhaps more importantly, moderate Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, says he continues to have “more concerns than enthusiasm” for the legislation.
If he, or one of the Senate Democrats that opposed the earlier legislation, can’t be persuaded that more independent charter schools would benefit Wisconsin students, SB 22 will be in trouble if it moves from the Joint Finance Committee to a vote in front of legislators, likely in October.
“Before we rush to blow the cap off of charter schools, let’s fully understand what the impact will be, especially on our rural schools,” Schultz told me in a recent telephone interview, adding that he has heard from plenty of school board members across Wisconsin who oppose the bill. They are unhappy with the proposal because it gives charter school organizers an option of going through the state authorizing board if they are turned down by their local school board.
“Most of the school boards are just incensed about this. It does take control away from local communities,” he notes. He adds that some of his colleagues in the Legislature share his concerns, and that he is not hearing from constituents that expanding charter school options is a high priority.
“My plate is pretty full with legislation that has more to do with jobs. That’s what my constituents are telling me they want me to be focusing on,” he says.
The amended bill would create a nine-member state-level Charter School Authorizing Board (CSAB), comprising the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, two appointees chosen by the superintendent and six members appointed by the governor. The earlier legislation, introduced in March, called for a CSAB of political appointees: three by the Governor, and three each by the leaders of the state Assembly and state Senate.
Other changes to the bill include limits on the number of contracts the CSAB could authorize over the next five years, beginning with five contracts in the first year of operation (2012-2013), and adding additional contracts in increments of five in each subsequent year through the 2017-2018 school year. Thereafter, the board could establish any number of charter schools.
There are also changes in the way general school aid would be reduced to pay for the establishment of charter schools. The new bill requires money from a student’s home district to follow a student opting to attend a new, independent charter school. The original bill would have deducted the payment for the charter school student — the state pays $7,775 to charter schools per student — from the state’s general school aid fund. The original bill created a furor among districts all over the state as they recognized that every charter school enrollee would remove money from a shared revenue pot already diminished by steep budget cuts. Now the pain of losing a student will be born only by the district the child is exiting. That could be acute, especially in districts where the state is already providing little or no general aid. In some cases, local property taxpayers could be required to step in to provide the funding.
But Sarah Granofsky Toce, executive director of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association, says a new charter authorizing board would help out in communities where school boards resist innovation or new charter school models for educating students.
“Politics is about compromise, and this legislation has gone through a number of significant changes since it was first introduced,” she says. “It represents a turning point that would increase the types of charter schools in Wisconsin and the programming they would offer.”
The Department of Public Instruction is on record opposing the legislation. In testimony last spring, deputy state Superintendent Michael Thompson expressed concern that the bill was a “blank check made out to independent charter schools by local school districts.”
According to DPI, Wisconsin doesn’t need additional legislation to increase charter school development in the state. In fact, according to DPI data, the state has been a national leader in developing public charter schools, with 236 charters currently in operation. The vast majority are chartered through their local boards of education although a handful of schools are chartered through UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside and the City of Milwaukee.
“We have administered well over a hundred million dollars of federal (planning) money to help develop quality charter schools in Wisconsin. Overall, we believe the current system works well, and has helped us avoid some of the problems and scandals that have plagued charter schools in other states,” says Patrick Gasper, a spokesman for DPI.
About 30 new public charter schools opened in communities across the state this fall, including Badger Rock Middle School here in Madison. Badger Rock’s curriculum focuses on what’s known as “experiential learning,” with an emphasis on urban agriculture. In exchange for fulfilling the mission of their charter, whether it’s environmental education like Badger Rock or dual-language immersion like Madison’s Nuestro Mundo, these schools are allowed to operate without many of the requirements imposed on traditional public schools.
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