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Assembly passes limited school accountability bill

By Matthew Defour | Wisconsin State Journal | Mdefour@madison.Com | 608-252-6144 - | Mar 21, 2014

Assembly Republicans backed down from pushing an expansive school accountability reform bill Thursday, instead passing the more limited Senate version approved with bipartisan support.

Republican lawmakers from both chambers struck a deal Thursday afternoon committing to meet this summer with “interested parties from all areas of K-12 education” and draft a comprehensive bill by January.

“Our goal is to create a system that will hold all schools accountable,” wrote Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Sen. Paul Farrow and Rep. Jim Steineke in a letter to Gov. Scott Walker.

Walker plans to sign the bill, spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said.

According to the letter, the meetings will lead to creating a more comprehensive school report card, a better weighting formula for the report card, sanctions for low-performing schools, incentives for high-performing schools, a process for schools to share best practices and a team that would be responsible for evaluating the system.

Farrow, vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Steineke, Assembly assistant majority leader, brokered the deal. They plan to lead the committee and work with the Department of Public Instruction and groups representing teachers, school boards, administrators and advocates for charter and private voucher schools.

“We want a comprehensive bill,” said Steineke, R-Kaukauna. “We’ve just run out of time this session.”

Farrow, R-Pewaukee, said the time frame and structure of the meetings still need to be worked out.

“I am pleased to hear that the Assembly is looking forward to discussing a comprehensive accountability system for Wisconsin,” Farrow said. “I look forward to working with Rep. Steineke this summer and all interested parties looking to the beginning of next session.”

The deal came after Farrow sent a letter to Assembly Republicans on Thursday urging them to adopt the version the Senate approved 29-3. The Assembly did so on a voice vote.

The bill requires private voucher and independent charter schools to provide student information and test results to the state by 2015-16. It also sets requirements for unique identifying numbers for students in those schools.

It does not make any changes to the school report card, nor does it set up consequences for low-performing private voucher schools. If no bill had passed, private voucher schools would receive a report card within six years.

In his letter Thursday, Farrow noted a proposed Assembly amendment was not supported by the Department of Public Instruction, public schools or voucher advocates School Choice Wisconsin, saying it contained “multiple technical flaws” and “potential constitutional flaws.”

“Our collective goal should be to develop effective public policy that will stand the test of time, not pass flawed legislation for the interest of what would be a short-term political win,” he wrote.

Senate Republicans showed little interest in passing a more expansive bill, and until Thursday there was no indication of communication on the matter between Senate and Assembly leadership. Walker said Wednesday he was concerned nothing would pass this session.

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he was glad the Assembly agreed to adopt the Senate bill.

“Getting people together to talk is wonderful,” Olsen said.

Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Cross Plains, said it’s been nearly four years since she joined a task force that designed the current school accountability system, but despite numerous hours of work, the system has not been enshrined in law.

“It’s time we take down the smoke screen being put up by the voucher lobby and get to work making sure our students have the best education that can be provided,” Pope said.

Also Thursday, the Assembly passed Senate Bill 584, which creates stricter accreditation and accounting standards for private voucher schools. It was intended to prevent future situations like LifeSkills Academy, a Milwaukee private voucher school that abruptly closed its doors last year because of financial problems. The Senate had unanimously passed the bill.


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