by Colleen Flaherty
Recent legislation in Wisconsin—dubbed the “school accountability” bill—is yet another move to further Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda of attacking Wisconsin’s neighborhood schools and strengthening support for private schools receiving taxpayer money.
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The bill would enact a grading scale for all Wisconsin schools. Instead of supporting “failing” public schools, the legislation takes a punitive approach of closing schools or converting public schools to privately-run charter schools. If a private school accepting vouchers receives a failing grade, the school would simply be barred from accepting new students.
“Families should know how those schools rank and how they measure up to other schools out there so they can make the best decision for their sons and daughters,” said Walker.
The glaring problem with this sentiment, said Wisconsin physical education teacher Brad Lutes, is that public and private schools would be held to different standards.
“Any school accountability legislation should pass the litmus test of whether it holds all schools receiving taxpayer dollars to the same standards and assessments,” said Lutes in his testimony to the Wisconsin State Assembly. “Otherwise parents and the community will not be able to make ‘apples to apples’ comparisons.”
Not only are the consequences for a failing grade unbalanced, but as the bill is currently written, the private schools that receive taxpayer-funded vouchers would be able to administer different tests of their choosing for the state assessment. Voucher schools are also able to turn down any students, and teachers at these schools do not require the same level of qualifications as public schools teachers.
Lutes said the correct approach should be what GOP legislative leaders say they are trying to do—hold all schools equally accountable.
“This approach means that voucher students be required to take the same tests as those required in public schools,” said Lutes. “It means that if struggling public schools must close their doors, so too should failing voucher schools. They should not be allowed to continue to take the taxpayer-funded vouchers for current students.”
Betsy Kippers, Racine teacher and WEAC president, said Wisconsin educators support school accountability measures that set a high bar for students and educators – not thinly veiled attempts to boost taxpayer-funded vouchers at the expense of neighborhood public schools.
“If I laid out the treatment of public and voucher schools in this bill to my students, they would easily see that voucher schools have an unfair advantage. This bill should leave every taxpayer wondering what the voucher lobbyists are afraid of,” said Kippers
“That’s an especially good question given the recent flight of the Milwaukee Lifeskills Academy voucher school operators to Florida after receiving $2 million in taxpayer dollars and discovering that only one of 66 students was academically proficient. Wisconsin students deserve a fair accountability system for all schools that are funded by Wisconsin taxpayers.”
Currently, Wisconsin lawmakers may not have the votes to pass the bill. However, Walker and voucher lobbyists are pushing hard for something to be passed before the legislative session ends in April.
“Nothing is more important than making sure Wisconsin students are getting a high-quality education,” Lutes said. “The sooner all schools receiving public funding are subject to transparent accountability measures and standards equal to those applied to public schools, the better. The state owes it not only to taxpayers, but also to our children. As important as this is, it is better for the Legislature to do nothing than to pass a bad bill under time pressure in the waning days of session. We need to get this right.”