MADISON — Representatives of Catholic and other private schools that participate in Wisconsin’s tax-funded voucher program spoke out Thursday against proposed new requirements that achievement data for their students who receive a subsidy be publicly reported.
The proposal before the committee, introduced by Republicans and two years in the making, would require for the first time that private schools in the voucher program report a wide range of performance information to the state. Public schools, including charters, already provide the data.
The hearing before the state Senate Education Committee demonstrated how difficult it will be for policy makers to come up with an accountability plan that can find support both within the public and private school communities, but also in the Legislature and with Gov. Scott Walker.
Bill backers say the performance of voucher school students needs to be reported in the same way as public schools so taxpayers can see how their money is being spent. But critics said the proposal creating that accountability system is deeply flawed.
Under the proposal, every public, charter and voucher school would receive a score based on data collected during the 2014 academic year. The scores would be in five categories — reading and math, achievement and growth in those areas, college and career readiness, closing student achievement and graduation rate gaps and student engagement.
The bill would also create a series of consequences for schools that underperform three years in a row, including restructuring, closing, revocation of charter or removal from the voucher program.
Public school supporters testified in favor of the proposal, saying it will help level the playing field between public schools and private schools that take taxpayer money under the voucher program.
“It’s important that the Legislature be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Luther Olsen, the Republican chairman of the Education Committee. “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.”
The Legislature this year voted to expand the taxpayer-subsidized voucher program beyond Milwaukee and the Racine area. This school year, 25 additional schools were allowed into the program, and they can accept 500 voucher students total. Next year the enrollment cap outside of Milwaukee and Racine will grow to 1,000 students.
The voucher program has a long history in Wisconsin. It began in Milwaukee in 1989 and was the first of its kind in the country. In 2011, the program expanded to Racine. While there is an enrollment cap for the new districts, there is no limit in Milwaukee and Racine.
The vouchers are $7,210 for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and $7,856 for those in high school.
As the voucher program grows, calls for students in it to be evaluated in the same way that public school students are has grown. Representatives of voucher schools testified Thursday that they support holding their students accountable, but the approach taken under Olsen’s bill is flawed.
“The devil’s in the details,” said Sue Nelson, associate superintendent of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a representative of the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent schools.
She said Catholic and other religious private schools had numerous problems with the proposal, including some of the data reporting requirements. Only reporting scores from voucher students, as the bill requires, would give a distorted view of a school’s performance, she said.
Opponents also raised concerns about student privacy, the type of data that would be collected and whether it would be evaluated and reported fairly by the Department of Public Instruction.
When pressed by Democratic Sen. Kathleen Vinehout on why voucher schools wouldn’t report test results for all their students, Nelson said it would be too costly to administer the state-required exams to students who aren’t receiving vouchers.
“We’re all trying to do better,” Vinehout said. “Why don’t you guys come along?”
Private schools need to understand that if they decide to take public money under the voucher program, they will be treated more like public schools, said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville.
“Welcome to the public arena,” Cullen said. “We all live in it. It isn’t always pretty. But that’s the price you’re going to pay if you enter it.”
Two years ago, Walker publicly called for creating an accountability system for all schools but has remained silent on how he feels about Olsen’s approach. Republican legislative leaders have signaled that major changes will be needed. Olsen’s bill only had three co-sponsors when it was introduced, another sign it is unlikely to pass in its current form.