Fitzgerald says ‘no appetite’ for school sanctions

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File photo (MGN Online/Freeport School District)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – There’s “no appetite” for passing a bill this year that imposes sanctions against poorly performing public or private voucher schools, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Friday.

Instead, the Senate will pursue a more limited school accountability bill that focuses on having private schools report the same data as public schools without a major overhaul of the report card, Fitzgerald told The Associated Press.

The move puts the Senate at odds with the Assembly, also controlled by Republicans, where lawmakers were working on a bill that does impose sanctions for poor-performing schools and assign letter grades to public schools and private schools with voucher students.

Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said he would introduce the bill with penalties for schools Monday. Steineke said he was hopeful that his proposal would pass the Assembly later this month and find support in the Senate, especially since he worked with senators on it.

“If we’re going to pass an accountability bill, we’ve got to have some accountability in it,” Steineke said.

Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Scott Walker have been working for more than two years with public and private schools, and others, on a plan to make private schools that accept students receiving taxpayer-subsidized vouchers appear on report cards that show how well public schools are performing.

Voucher proponents are hoping to create the accountability system as they push to further increase the voucher program next year beyond the current 1,000-student limit.

But numerous previous versions have failed to garner support from the varied interested groups – namely public school and private school proponents – to pass.

The most recent attempt released last month by Republican Sen. Luther Olsen, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, proposed to assign letter grades to public and choice schools for the first time and impose penalties that would require poor-performing public schools to close and re-open as charters. Private schools with bad grades would have been barred from accepting new voucher students.

Fitzgerald said there are not enough votes in the Senate to pass something like that.

Olsen said an alternative has been drafted that would simply include private schools that accept voucher students on the school report cards. The current format of the cards, which does not assign letter grades, would remain the same and schools that don’t improve or have poor performance would not be forced to close or be barred from taking voucher students, he said.

Under the proposal, voucher students would take the same test as public school students and have those results on the report card.

“It’s far better than doing nothing,” Olsen said of the more limited bill.

Jim Bender, the president of pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin, declined to comment until he sees the latest proposal. Dan Rossmiller, executive director at the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, also declined to comment before seeing the latest bill draft.

Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Village of Pewaukee, has been working on an accountability bill that would do more than the limited one Fitzgerald described. But Farrow said consensus could not be reached.

“My concern is we’re trying to put a bill together now for the sake of getting a bill done and we’re not looking at the big picture and all the different pieces of it,” Farrow said.

Farrow said he would work with Olsen on introducing the limited accountability bill Monday with the hope of passing it later this month. It would take effect in the 2015-2016 school year, Farrow said, giving the Legislature time in early 2015 to work on a more expansive proposal addressing sanctions and other areas.

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