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Politics & Government

Dozens Turn Out For Hearing on Wisconsin School Accountability Bill

Justin Kern

An overflow crowd spilled into a hallway Wednesday at the state capitol.

Everyone wanted to weigh-in on a bill to hold schools accountable for student performance.

The committee hearing was on the plan Assembly Republicans crafted. It would grade each school receiving public money, and penalize those that continue to fail.  Yet, sponsors of the plan changed part of it, near the start of the hearing.

The initial Assembly plan called for the state to create a board. It would grade schools using public funding, and impose sanctions of those that perform poorly, after intervention. But Republican state Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt kicked off Wednesday’s hearing by announcing a change. He eliminated the idea of a board, after both Republicans and Democrats voiced concerns.

“It’s just another level of bureaucracy that is not necessary and to be frank, there was no fair way to get people onto that board,” Thiesfeldt says.

Yet, Thiesfeldt says, what will remain in his bill – are penalties. The state would turn over failing public schools to charter operators and cut off funding for low-performing voucher schools.

“There has to be a line drawn in the sand somewhere where you’re going to not keep from doing the same thing and we’re going to make a significant change. Maybe there’s a better idea out there. I’m all ears but I haven’t heard it to this point,” Thiesfeldt says.

One supporter of the Assembly bill is fellow Republican Rep. Rob Hutton. He says the state must help students stuck in failing schools.

“While we are all sitting here debating this political hot potato, let’s not forget that there are children in those schools and parents of those children who are begging for another option that in many cases, don’t exist,” Hutton says.

There were unanswered questions about the bill. They included - who would manage shuttered public school buildings, and, could a public school turned over to a charter operator, ever again return to the public system.

Several people spoke against the measure, including Jeff Pertl of the Department of Public Instruction. He wonders what the ramifications would be of each school being assigned a letter grade.

“I don’t know if my mom would feel good about me going to a C school. And, I think that label carries power. I think it affects things like property values, when you’re trying to sell your home, what community you want to move into, it matters. I would caution how that particular descriptor is going to impact people’s view of schools,” Pertl says.

Another person with concerns is Jim Bender, of the group School Choice Wisconsin. He says the state cannot judge every district by the same standards.

“There are school settings in Milwaukee that are different from the rest of the state. There are poverty levels, individual poverty levels in the state are dramatically different. So, to have a single measuring stick that says, here is how your school is performing, is a very difficult thing to do,” Bender says.

The Assembly Education Committee did not vote on the bill Wednesday, but Chairman Jeremy Thiesfeldt hopes it does, next week.

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