School accountability bills top priority in 2015
By Logan Carlson, Marshfield News Herald
 
A provision of a Republican-authored school accountability bill potentially could lead to higher property taxes for central Wisconsin residents.
 
Schools that are deemed as habitually underperforming according to Department of Public Instruction report cards would be converted into independently run charter schools. A total of 135 public schools fit that criteria, according to analysis by DPI.
 
Rep. Bob Kulp, R-Stratford, is a co-sponsor to the Assembly bill, and said that provision wouldn't directly affect any schools in central Wisconsin.
 
"In our area, I don't think (schools) will be impacted in any way. I could drive 90 minutes in any direction before you run into any school that would be a part of it," Kulp said.
 
Kulp is correct that the closest school placed in the lowest two report card categories by DPI in three consecutive years is in Antigo. However, the idea that it wouldn't have a direct effect on residents in the area is misleading, said John Gaier, superintendent of the Neillsville School District and executive director of the Association for Equity in Funding.
 
Gaier said about $88,000 from Neillsville's general state aid goes to pay for charter schools in Milwaukee each year. That difference is then made up by local property taxes.
 
"About half of the public schools in Milwaukee would be converted to for-profit charters," Gaier said. "Even if my school district is doing fine, and we have schools here that are exceeding expectations, our taxpayers are going to have to pay more because we're going to be losing more general aid to schools that have been taken over.
 
"It seems to be penalizing schools that do well," Gaier said.
 
Kulp said he believes the provision of the bill was included to help give those schools increased direction and tools for improvement.
 
"Some people are seeing an ill intent in what's trying to be done (in Madison)," Kulp said. "I can speak to the character and tenacity for the people putting this out. We're not talking about trying to derail the system."
 
Legislators have wasted no time introducing a series of bills designed to bring accountability to public and private schools in the state.
 
Bills in both houses of the state Legislature introduced during the 2015 session revolve around reforming the current school accountability system, something legislative leaders have made a priority in the first month of the year.
 
Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, author of the Senate bill, said he had to introduce it sooner than he would have liked, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
 
"I think it was moving faster than it should have," he told the State Journal. "There's always the speed-over-quality concern. You want to make sure you have effective legislation."
 
Farrow's comments echo those of Democrats who feel the rush to pass such bills is simply a "check a box."
 
"They're pushing this accountability bill, which is a false narrative, to say they set up accountability for the expanded voucher program," said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point.
 
"If the Republicans are serious about accountability for private vouchers schools, that's great, they can sign onto the Democratic-authored bill from last session that would hold our private voucher schools accountable and would apply public school accountability measures to any private schools that take public tax dollars.
 
"They are essentially trying to check a box. Republicans in office want to pave the way for a massive expansion of taxpayer funded vouchers," Shankland said. "In order to do that, they have to claim they are holding vouchers accountable, without saying they are holding them to different standards than public schools."
 
The measures in the accountability bills would replace the school and district report cards that have been produced by DPI the previous three years. Those report cards have been widely seen as one of the most informative and readable accountability reports for parents and educators, according to a study by the Education Commission of the States, a state-led research organization.