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WI GOP Leaders Set to Take Up Education Reforms

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Monday was inauguration day, not only for Gov. Walker, but also for Wisconsin’s Legislature. Some Republican members are anxious to get to work on education policy.

Alan Borsuk was a longtime education reporter in Milwaukee, and is now a senior fellow at Marquette Law School. He says the Republican majority’s agenda will likely not be favorable to the state’s largest district – Milwaukee Public Schools.

“(MPS) holds almost no political cards. They’ve done a few things that rubbed Republican legislators wrong, such as how they’ve handled the empty buildings issue. They’ve done a couple things that might appeal to some legislators, such as how they’ve cut their obligations to retirees, benefiting from, of all things, Act 10. But ultimately, achievement hasn’t improved in Milwaukee Public Schools and I think Republican legislators are feeling like, 'Let’s do something about that,’” Borsuk says.

Borsuk says State Sen. Alberta Darling is reportedly considering a bill that would allow some sort of takeover of low-performing MPS schools.

“The notion is to basically bring in new management of a group of chronically low-performing schools and most likely turn them into charter schools, take away a group of maybe a couple dozen MPS schools and say, now we’re going to run them differently,” Borsuk says. “Turning it from an idea into a reality that’s constructive has been difficult everywhere it’s been tried, so whether it can be done in a way that could actually work is the question I’m most interested in.”

Borsuk also touched on potential policy changes regarding school vouchers. Right now, the statewide voucher program, as opposed to the Milwaukee and Racine programs, is capped at 1,000 students. Borsuk contends Republicans are determined to raise the statewide cap.

“But there are two big questions for me: How many kids will they allow in? And second, what will be the income threshold?” he says. “Right now, to qualify for vouchers in that state program, the cap is fairly low, which means you have to be pretty much a low-income family. But in Milwaukee for example, it’s 300 percent of the federal poverty table, which means it’s a quite middle-class program. If (lawmakers) extend the (state) program to the middle class, it would encompass way more kids statewide and would have much bigger impact.”

Borsuk says because state testing data shows students in private, voucher schools are doing about the same academically as students in Milwaukee Public Schools, some advocates for school choice are changing how they market the idea.

“Just simply as, it’s a great idea. Parents deserve the best choices. Parents deserve the widest range of choice. They’re not dwelling too much on the achievement thing, which I wish everyone would dwell more on the achievement concerns and pushing for quality in all these schools, all the different streams of schools," he says.

The Legislature’s Republican majority is also likely to tackle school accountability. Borsuk says some GOP members are hoping to create a new system that assigns schools grades based on how they perform.

“The other thing is create a statewide council on school accountability, some kind of board. It would have to be a part of the state Department of Public Instruction because of provisions in the state Constitution, and just what the powers of this board would be to monitor school quality and what it could do about schools that are chronically low performing, isn’t clear,” Borsuk says. “But that would be the goal – to hold all schools, public private and charter – to some strict standards and consequences if they continually don’t get good results.

Borsuk says Republicans in the Senate and Assembly may also attempt to repeal Common Core in Wisconsin, though opposition to the new standards appears to be waning.

“Partly because we are so far down the road in pursuing the Common Core and most of the standards themselves are not controversial. Some are, but for the bulk of things, schools are deep into pursing this,” he says. “And one thing that I hear the most from all schools, and especially the better ones – public, private, charter – is, ‘Stop changing the rules. Let us focus on what we’re doing.’ So I think there’s going to be a fairly strong feeling about not upsetting the apple cart too much.”

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