By Jason Stein and Erin Richards
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
October 26, 2011
An independent charter school program would expand to medium and large school districts around Wisconsin, under a bill passed Wednesday by Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee.
The proposal passed 12-3 on a party-line vote, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats against.
Republicans also approved 12-3 another bill that would overhaul the state’s tax enforcement system.
Charter schools already exist all over the state but are now authorized entirely by local school boards, except in Milwaukee and Racine. The schools bill would allow independent charter school programs, which are authorized by a body other than the school board, to start up in other districts. The bill would largely apply to districts with more than 2,000 students, which account for roughly a quarter of the districts in the state.
Republicans said it would help provide another options for students whose schools are failing them.
“The bill we are taking up today is truly something that is going to help the long-term prospects of Wisconsin,” said Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), a co-chairman of the committee.
But Democrats said the program would undermine local control of schools by elected officials – school board members – in favor of an unelected board. They said the proposal would also prove another financial blow to regular public schools that are losing nearly $800 million in state aid over two years as part of the state budget and having tight state caps placed on their property tax levies.
“Charter schools are not evil, but this bill is being pushed by an awful lot of people who believe public schools are evil,” Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) said.
Charter schools are public schools that have more freedom to experiment with curriculum and staffing than traditional public schools. They exist through a contract with a chartering authority that outlines academic targets and other measures of performance that the school must meet. If the school can’t meet the targets, the chartering authority may shut them down.
Charter advocates like to say that the schools receive autonomy in exchange for accountability.
New board planned
The new bill would create a statewide board to authorize independent charter schools in other parts of the state. The practice of allowing charters to be authorized by an entity other than the local school board already happens in Milwaukee, where the Common Council, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Milwaukee Area Technical College can all charter the independent schools. MATC does not currently use that authority.
When districts charter schools, they get to count the children as part of their total enrollment.
In the bill, the chair of the statewide charter board and another member would be appointed by Gov. Scott Walker and future governors. The Republican and Democratic leaders in the state Senate and Assembly would each have one appointee to the board. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers would also sit on it.
Nonprofits would receive the contracts to run the charter schools, and the bill would repeal the current ability of Milwaukee Public Schools to contract with for-profit businesses to run charter schools. The statewide board could enter into five contracts in the 2012-’13 school year, with five more being added each year until the 2017-’18 school year, when the board would be able to have an unlimited number of contracts.
The state would pay for the program by figuring how many students in a given district are attending a charter school rather than a regular public school and giving the charter school $7,775 for each student. The state would then take that money out of the state aid going to the regular district. If the aid to the district isn’t enough to cover the charter school cost, the rest would come from state taxpayers. The district would not be able to make up the lost state aid through property taxes.
The bill would also allow a school board to convert all schools in a district into charter schools and end a requirement in current law that a petition must be signed first by half of the teachers in the school district.
Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) said the bill went too far.
“This bill unravels a 100-year-old tradition of local control over schools, creates unnecessary bureaucracy, and worsens already devastating cuts to public education,” Mason said.
Smaller districts exempt
For the state charter board provisions, Republicans excluded school districts with fewer than 2,000 students, where the loss of students to a charter school would be a more serious financial hit. About 315 of the state’s 424 school districts would be too small to be affected by the state charter school board, according to the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget office.
Under the bill, local cooperative education service agencies, which are regional government agencies that provide services to public schools, could also independently charter schools – in districts of any size.
Sarah Granofsky Toce, the executive director of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association, said that people or organizations who want to open charter schools would need to first apply to their local school district, which would have 90 days to work out an agreement with the potential school operator. If no agreement is reached, she said, the operator could then take its proposal to one of the newly created entities that will authorize the charter schools.
She said if the bill passes, it would take awhile to set up the authorizing boards and train the members how to review applications and look for quality proposals.
Tax bill: The tax-enforcement measure would have complex and arcane effects on how certain cases are handled by the Department of Revenue. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau said it wasn’t possible to estimate what effect the bill would have on state revenue.
The drafting file noted 10 pages of suggested provisions that came from a May 16 meeting with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. James Buchen, a lobbyist for WMC, said the business lobby gave feedback on the bill and it wasn’t surprising his group was involved.
“The bill is trying to respond to the concerns of taxpayers. Businesses are taxpayers,” Buchen said.
Department of Revenue spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the agency consulted with various groups on the bill to make the tax system “more fair, clear and consistent.”
“Much of the bill codifies existing practices within the agency. Yes, WMC was part of the business groups, as should be expected,” Marquis said.
Rep. Pat Strachota (R-West Bend), a lead sponsor of the bill, said that she has been working on similar legislation since 2005 and that she has largely worked with the Department of Revenue. Strachota said the bill would have a minimal effect on state revenue by design, saying she had removed elements of the bill that might have had a larger effect.
But Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona) said he was concerned about the involvement of WMC in putting the bill together.