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Voucher school accountability bill on right track: Other View

10:26 AM, Sep. 10, 2013  |  Comments
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As he promised during the state budget process, Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, has come up with a plan to provide for better accountability for voucher schools.

As part of the debate over expansion of the state's voucher school program, in which tax dollars are used to pay for some students' private-school tuition, Olsen stressed that this plan was on the way - and would help ensure that those taxes were spent responsibly.

Olsen, the Senate Education Committee chairman, has authored the bill with Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake, the Assembly Education Committee chairman. Actually, they've been working on the issue for two years, on a task force that included Gov. Scott Walker and Department of Public Instruction Secretary Tony Evers.

The result appears to be a strong start to getting public schools and voucher schools on as level of a playing field as is possible right now.

Last year, public schools were under a new rating system that measured their performance in a number of areas. But, as is the case with any new system, there were flaws that needed to be fixed. Olsen's and Kestell's plan refines the rating system and makes it apply to both public schools and voucher schools.

All of the schools will be rated on their results in reading and math, achievement and growth in reading and math, college and career readiness, closing gaps in student achievement and graduation rates, and student engagement.

Each school will be given a score, on a 0 to 100 scale, and a rating in one of five categories, from "significantly exceeds expectations" to "fails to meet expectations."

If a school fares poorly for three consecutive years, it would face consequences, from restructuring to closure (for public schools) or rescinding their charter or voucher status.

The fact that the same ratings apply to voucher schools as well as public schools is good news. One of the problems with the current voucher system is a lack of accountability and valid comparisons to public schools. If voucher schools are intended to be a substitute for public schools, they need to be evaluated by the same measures. On the surface, at least, this system will achieve that.

Of course, public and voucher schools will never truly be on the same playing field because private schools have the ability to turn away some students, such as those with special needs, while public schools take - and educate - all comers, no matter their needs or families' income levels.

There's also a natural question of whether the new rating system fixed all of the problems with the old rating system. Chances are it doesn't, but it should definitely be an improvement.

As Olsen told The Associated Press, "It's a complicated bill." As such, some details may turn out to be problems.

But it's encouraging that the DPI - which has rightly been a strong proponent of voucher-school accountability - has been generally supportive of the bill, while voucher proponents have been critical of DPI's role in the plan or are reserving judgment. In particular, the public needs to be wary of the role that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a voucher-group waterboy, will have in changing the bill and influencing other representatives.

Olsen and Kestell, who have been among a too-small group of Republican legislators that has pushed for responsibility in spending tax money on vouchers, deserve credit for their efforts.

- Post-Crescent Media

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