Charters Receive Fresh Look in Wisconsin Legislature

Published October 31, 2013

State Sen. Alberta Darling has proposed a measure to increase the number of independent charters in Wisconsin and allow self-replication by the highest-performing charter schools.

Because most Wisconsin charters must be approved by their competitors, local school districts, the alternative public schools are almost at a standstill outside of Milwaukee, said Carrie Bonk, executive director of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association.

“Although school districts statewide have the authorization to charter schools, they have mainly only been doing so … as instruments of the districts,” she said.

Of the 400 districts in the state, only 97 can authorize charter schools, and some are very small, rural districts, Bonk said. Districts typically either reject charter ideas or water them down.

“In both cases, the purpose of the innovation and flexibility is lost altogether,” Bonk said. “The need for multiple authorizers and expanding outside of the Milwaukee area and into the state is critical for independent charters.”

Overshadowed by Vouchers
“For the most part [charters have] been pushed to the back burner by the overarching school choice programs in the state,” said Christian D’Andrea, an education analyst for Wisconsin’s John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy. “Especially with voucher expansion on the horizon.”

Mediocre education performance in Wisconsin public schools is bolstering some pro-charter arguments, he said.

“The biggest thing Alberta believes in is that parents should have a choice,” said Bob Delaporte, spokesman for Darling (R-River Hills). “We spend a lot of money to educate kids in Milwaukee, and we’re not getting the results we need. It’s the biggest city in the state, and we’re counting on those kids … to be future leaders. We’re not doing them any favors by locking them into a school where they can’t succeed.”

Milwaukee is almost treated like an independent entity in the state, and many worry about expanding school choice outside the city, D’Andrea said.

Outside of Milwaukee, there are only eight charter schools not authorized by school districts, and half of those are online schools.

A ‘Back-Door’ Solution
Darling’s proposal, an amendment to Senate Bill 76, would allow Wisconsin colleges and universities to authorize charter schools in their school district or one in an adjoining county. It would also pre-approve requests by any charter school whose students score 10 percent or more higher than local district students two years in a row to create additional schools.

Bonk says the problem has been visible since Wisconsin first allowed charters 20 years ago.

“The last two legislative sessions we’ve been addressing the need wholeheartedly for independent authorizers,” Bonk said. “We know that replication has the support it needs, but multiple authorizers may not.”

Independent authorizers may take a backseat to high-quality charter school replication, which may be the best option in the state’s current education climate, D’Andrea said.

“It’s really difficult to push any kind of statewide authorizing board,” D’Andrea said. “Expanding that market is going to be very, very difficult. Replication is kind of a back door to get to that statewide authorization.”

Providing Quality Choices
Gary Bennett, Darling’s education policy advisor, taught for several years before attending law school and matriculated from Teach for America.

“It’s very important to not only provide choices to parents, but to provide quality choices,” Bennett said. “That means to replicate if [a charter school] has a proven track record and incentivize replicating by removing barriers.”

Creating as clean a climate as possible for effective operators to grow and produce a more laissez-faire environment for charter growth are key to educational improvement, Bennett said.

“Replication may be the first and best step,” D’Andrea said.

Opponents Complain About Funding
In Wisconsin, as elsewhere, opponents typically complain charters take students, and therefore education dollars, from traditional public schools.

“You can’t drain money from a public school to a different public school,” Bennett said. “Even if we accept the opponents’ argument, allocation is fixed. When we decrease, we would give less money to the charters than the public school district.”

Although negotiations are still underway, lawmaker support and the current committee hearing timeline bode well for the bill, Bennett said.


Image by Henry de Saussure Copeland.