Wisconsin School Privatization Gets Shot of Rocket Fuel

The education committee in the Wisconsin state senate passed Senate Bill 76 on Wednesday, loosening the process for authorizing new charter schools in Milwaukee and allowing these schools to replicate themselves automatically if they outperform average Milwaukee Public Schools on test scores by 10 percent.

Rocketship Education, a California-based charter school company that aims to open new schools in Milwaukee, lobbied for the bill and appears to be its primary beneficiary.

In fact, committee chairman Luther Olsen, Republican of Ripon, told colleagues during a break in the hearing today, "We're just doing this for Rocketship," according to one Democratic committee member.

The good news is, the bill is significantly scaled back from a more ambitious version. That previous version would have applied to the whole state, in what Senator Kathleen Vinehout called a bid "to open the public checkbook wider for private firms to run public schools."

Especially given recent deep cuts to public education budgets, "that would have really blown up the whole public school system," says Senator John Lehman.

Thanks to public pressure, Senator Olsen appears to have dropped the statewide effort. (A bill in the Wisconsin Assembly continues to press for the statewide expansion.)

The bad news is the craven way in which this bill and others like it serve the interests of a handful of private school operators at the expense of public education in the state.

Opposition to Senate Bill 76 was seriously weakened as two out of four Democrats on the education committee missed today's vote because they were either hospitalized or home recovering from surgery--Senator Kathleen Vinehout for multiple fractures after a recent car accident, and Senator Tim Cullen for heart surgery. That left to Senators Nikiya Harris and John Lehman to make the case against the loosening of rules for independent charter schools in Milwaukee, before the bill passed on a straight party-line vote.

"It's a privatization mechanism, that's all it is," said Lehman. "It's beyond me how far they'll go just to make charters everywhere."

Lehman introduced three amendments, all of which were shot down by Republicans on the committee.

The first would have required a charter school operator who wants to impose an expansion to demonstrate "proven success" by exceeding the performance of students statewide by 10 percent--not just the students in the local district.

The standard in the bill--10 percent better than the average Milwaukee Public School score--is a "low standard," Lehman pointed out. "You get taxpayer dollars and automatically replicate for meeting this low standard."

Lehman offered a second amendment that would have raised that standard to exceed the performance of each, including the best performing school in the district.

"I don't know if somebody has a friend here," Lehman commented during the hearing. "Why would we grease the skids just for Rocketship?" he asked.

Finally, Lehman offered an amendment that would have allowed the state Department of Public Instruction to make the determination whether a charter school had exceeded public school performance by 10 percent.

That one lost, too. It's not clear who will determine "proven success."

Under the bill, which will likely come before the full legislature in January or February, the City of Milwaukee, UW-Milwaukee, and MATC can authorize charter schools and must authorize a charter school to open no more than two additional charter schools per year, if one of those schools "has a proven track record of success" (meaning 10 percent higher test scores than the average Milwaukee Public school.)

"There's no way to say no to the dollars," Lehman pointed out. "They get authorized, and they get so much per student."

And here's the controversial part in all of the Republicans' charter-school expansion bills: that money comes off the top of all state education funds, so it draws down public-school funding even in districts far from Milwaukee.

"You put vouchers and charters together and watch the increases in money on that side, and put public schools on the other side--it's pretty obvious what's going on," Lehman says.

To make it more obvious, check out the list of registered lobbyists for and against Senate Bill 76.

In favor:

American Federation for Children
Education Reform Now
Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce
National Heritage Academies
Rocketship Education
Wisconsin Charter Schools Association
Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families

In opposition:

Association of Wisconsin School Administrators
Institute for Wisconsin's Future
Milwaukee Public Schools
Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance
Wisconsin Association of School Boards, Inc.
Wisconsin Association of School Business Officials
Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators
Wisconsin Business Alliance
Wisconsin Council for Administrators of Special Services
Wisconsin Education Association Council
Wisconsin State AFL-CIO


Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools

Photo: "Failed test or exam and surprised woman," via Shutterstock.