GOP plans more K-12 education choices for Wisconsin

2011-01-16T00:00:00Z 2011-01-17T06:40:20Z GOP plans more K-12 education choices for WisconsinBy MATTHEW DeFOUR Wisconsin State Journal La Crosse Tribune

The Legislature's new Republican leaders will emphasize giving school districts, parents and students more choices as they seek reforms in K-12 education, and opposition is surfacing to a proposal that would kill Madison's 4-year-old kindergarten program.

Later this month, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, a former teacher and co-chairwoman of the Legislature's budget committee, plans to introduce a charter school reform package that will, among other things, call for an independent statewide board to approve charter schools.  

Currently local school boards approve charter schools, even if they won't be directly operated by the district. A statewide board could help proposals, such as an all-male charter school in Madison, move forward "without having to wait forever and ever and without having lots of obstacles," Darling said.

Other education reforms are expected in Gov. Scott Walker's 2011-13 budget proposal in February, said Rep. Robin Vos, Assembly chairman of the budget committee.

Facing up to a $3.3 billion deficit over the next two years, likely cuts in K-12 funding will be paired with relaxed state regulations to help school districts cut costs and leverage concessions from teachers unions, said Vos, R-Rochester.

Walker has also suggested tying teacher pay raises to performance and giving schools letter grades, but it's unclear if those ideas will surface in the budget plan.

No cap on virtual schools

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, and Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake, the new chairmen of the Legislature's education committees, want to remove the cap on virtual charter school enrollment. Olsen also wants to expand virtual learning opportunities within brick-and-mortar schools to let students progress at their own pace.

"We want to give students more choices to be successful," Olsen said. "If they can get done faster than the old model, let's let them move on." The leaders also want to look at expanding Milwaukee Parental Choice, the state's only private school voucher program, which Vos and Darling said last week they support.

Meanwhile, Olsen said he opposes a proposal by Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, to cut 4-year-old kindergarten, which is now in 85 percent of school districts and costs the state about $140 million a year. Madison is starting its own program next fall.

"I would rather cut out the senior year of high school," Olsen said. "My philosophy is you look at the research, you look at what's good for kids. This is good for kids. We get a big payoff."

Olsen has hired education policy consultant Sarah Archibald, a UW-Madison professor and researcher at the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. Archibald has written about attracting high-quality teachers by offering bonuses to top math and science students who decide to teach, making it easier for teachers trained outside Wisconsin to obtain certification here and increasing the grade-point requirement for aspiring teachers above the current 2.5.

Cutting mandates

Olsen served 21 years - nine as president - on the Berlin Area School Board and led the Assembly education committees from 1997 to 2004 and the Senate committee in 2005-06. Kestell served on the Howards Grove School Board for 15 years before joining the Assembly in 1999.

Kestell said he wants to cut back on state education "mandates," including curriculum requirements, such as teaching Native American and labor history, to limitations on contract negotiations, such as a law passed last year that doesn't allow an arbitrator to settle teacher contract disputes using local economic factors.

Olsen wants to ensure that districts can consider teacher performance, and not just seniority, when considering layoffs, something the teachers' union opposes.

Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said there will be opportunities to find common ground as the Department of Public Instruction adopts new student testing standards required by the federal government and develops a comprehensive method for evaluating teacher performance. A pilot program for evaluating teachers could be in some schools by next fall, she said.

"We believe evaluation is possible and important, but it needs to measure what it is educators really do," Bell said. "There are lots of questions about how that really works."

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