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Another view: Keep promise on voucher-school accountability

7:24 PM, Mar. 4, 2014  |  Comments
State Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, speaks in support of his bill that would require private voucher schools to report test scores and other data for inclusion on a statewide report card last month in Madison.
State Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, speaks in support of his bill that would require private voucher schools to report test scores and other data for inclusion on a statewide report card last month in Madison.
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Wisconsin residents were promised, when the 2013-15 budget was passed in June, that voucher schools would be held to the same accountability standards as public schools.

With time running out in this year's legislative session, we still don't have a voucher-school accountability law.

In a voucher program, taxes are used to pay for students to attend private schools. Wisconsin's program had been limited to Milwaukee and Racine until a provision in the budget allowed for a statewide program for students from low-income families that's limited to 500 this year and 1,000 next year.

But attempts in the Legislature to hold voucher schools to the same testing standards as public schools have gotten complicated - too complicated.

In the Assembly, the latest proposal would also incorporate changes to the relatively new report-card system for school performance and create a new council that would come up with the report-card changes and impose sanctions on all schools - public, charter or voucher - that fail to live up to the standards over three years, including closure.

The Senate has passed a bill that wouldn't change the current report cards but would move up the date when voucher schools are part of the same system from the 2020-21 school year to the 2015-16 school year.

At the same time, voucher school representatives have voiced their concerns about any kind of accountability system. They say testing only voucher students at their schools wouldn't be a fair reflection of their school's performance. But they say testing all of their students would be too expensive. And they want to be able to choose the test they use, not be required to use the same test as public schools.

To those concerns, we say, "Tough." If voucher schools want to take tax money, they have to be willing to participate in an apples-to-apples comparison. If not, they're welcome to get out of the program.

As Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, the Senate Education Committee chairman, told the Associated Press, "No matter if you're a public school, a charter school or a choice school, if you get a check, you're going to get a checkup."

For his part, Gov. Scott Walker has also repeatedly said he wants the Legislature to pass a voucher-school accountability bill this year, though he hasn't been specific about testing requirements.

"I just think anything that's in there should be as equal as possible so we're applying the same types of standards," he told the Wisconsin State Journal last month.

As for the report cards, the system does need to be changed. As it stands, it's much more a reflection of the income level in a school's enrollment area than a reflection of the school's work. But that's a much bigger conversation, especially when considering sanctions for low-performing schools.

Voucher-school accountability can't wait - not until 2020 and not until 2015. The voucher-school expansion happened in less than two months. There's no reason to think a testing and accountability plan can't be in place for the 2014-15 school year.

The Legislature needs to get this done, as promised.

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