Wisconsin Officials Want More Data from Private Schools

Published August 30, 2013

Top Wisconsin officials have introduced a plan to require more data collection from private voucher schools. The scheme is unlikely to become law, however, said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin.

“I don’t know if it could ever be put in a form where we could support it,” said Matthew Kussow, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools. “It’s about the Department of Public Instruction and what their role in our children’s lives is. I think the underlying goal is to improve our school system. But what a private school parent or the administrator of a private school might believe improves the school is going to be vastly different than those in a public school, down to the tests that they would use to measure success.”

State Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake), the education chairmen in their respective chambers, proposed August 14 to require private schools to collect information about voucher students for the state’s student information system, such as test scores, race, family income, disabilities, and “pupil engagement in school.” The state could charge schools for the system, and would use it to determine schools’ continued voucher eligibility.

Olsen’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Senate Bill 286 had its first public hearing Sept. 12 and has been assigned to the education committee.

The proposal would also redistribute public school teachers to achieve “equitable” amounts of better teachers in poor-performing public schools.

Gov. Scott Walker’s press secretary Tom Evenson said Walker would review the legislation if it reaches his desk.

More Regulations, Worse Quality
“This legislation is probably motivated by a combination of political expediency and an earnest desire to improve the quality of education,” said Andrew Coulson, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at Cato Institute. “Unfortunately, that recipe doesn’t always produce good policy. I’ve studied different kinds of school systems operating side-by-side in countries all over the world and across history, and the pattern that emerges is very clear: it is the most market-like, least-regulated systems that do the best job of serving families.”

Coulson said he has long believed education tax credits do not erode educators’ freedom as strongly as vouchers, because they don’t use government money. A recent Thomas B. Fordham study found Wisconsin’s voucher program, the oldest, is also the most regulated in the country.

“I hope that Wisconsin’s voucher program will buck the trend and roll back the regulatory tide, but it will be hard for them. In the meantime, I hope other states will learn a lesson from its experience, and from the differences in regulation between voucher and tax credit programs,” Coulson said.

‘Accountability’ By Any Other Name
Vouchers have been “a hot topic” in Wisconsin ever since the state first created them, said Christian D’Andrea, an education policy analyst at Wisconsin’s MacIver Institute for Public Policy, “and opponents have left no stone unturned in attacking them.”

Attempting to regulate voucher schools out of existence has long been a favorite anti-choice tactic under the label of “accountability,” D’Andrea said.

“The strongest accountability measure these schools will ever face,” Bender said, “regardless of state intervention, is the accountability they have to show towards parents in order to keep students in their classrooms. However, if the proposed program sticks to measuring student growth in categories like math and reading, schools can implement it without having to significantly change their curricula.”

The important question is whether extra information-gathering benefits students, Kussow said, and no one has demonstrated it does.

“This bill takes at least a dozen steps back by requiring schools to turn over a great deal more data, a lot of which has nothing to do with the report card, and it just empowers [the Department of Public Instruction] to come in in a way they currently aren’t and be able to remove schools from the program,” Bender said.

State Superintendent Tony Evers, who oversees the voucher program, has frequently said it should be eliminated.

“This bill has a long way to go before it sees the light of day,” Bender concluded.

Image by Nebraska Library Commission.