On Wisconsin—to Real Chartering

For over twenty years, I’ve watched my neighbors to the east in Wisconsin struggle with their charter school law.  It needs improvement—badly.  The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranks their law 38th of 43 charter school laws in the nation.  That’s why I went to Madison, Wisconsin January 9 to testify before a committee of the Wisconsin Assembly in support of a bill that would bring their law closer to a model charter law.   The bill, AB 549,  was sponsored by Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga, and was heard for more than 6 hours.

I didn’t mince words in my testimony.  My message?  Even though Wisconsin calls 245 schools “charter schools,” most are not real charter schools.   The only true charter schools are in Milwaukee, with one in Sheboygan.  The remainder are “instrumentality” schools, which are really district-controlled schools.  There is little autonomy for these schools, which is fundamental to chartering.  Instrumentality schools are sponsored by local school boards and subject to their control.  There are no alternate sponsors.

There is nothing wrong with district-controlled schools. They are just not chartered schools, and the public should not be told they are.  The truth is, Wisconsin families are not receiving the choices and opportunities offered by chartering and supported by 70% of the American public today.  And that has been the case since the Wisconsin law passed back in 1993.

So how did the Wisconsin law come to be?  The opponents of chartering, primarily the teacher unions, were changing their position by 1993.  No longer were they opposing chartering outright as they did the first two years; they were now “embracing” the concept of chartering as long as the law was modified to their liking.  So Wisconsin and a few other states responded by removing some key components like autonomy from the Minnesota 1991 charter model law, and passed a law more in line with the view of opponents.  But they still called it a charter law.  That is what Wisconsin has today. Wisconsin has a charter school law that was shaped by opponents of chartering twenty years ago.  Lawmakers essentially took the chartering out of the charter school law.  Most other states in that position have since upgraded their law to a true charter law—a law that facilitates autonomous and accountable schools rather than district-dependent schools.

What is most ironic to me is that the current Wisconsin law has only added more bureaucracy to something the school districts can already do on their own.  The law added a complicated authorizing process, administrative overhead, more expense and more angst for educators and parents, to essentially create a district “magnet” school.

So I invited Assembly committee members to consider this:  “Either pass legislation to create a real charter school law in Wisconsin,  or repeal the law you have.”  Consider making the City of Milwaukee a charter district so their genuine charter schools continue to achieve successful results for students.

Charter school advocates in Wisconsin, including the WisconsinCharter Schools Association led by Carrie Bonk, are pouring their hearts and souls into this effort.  They are fighting an uphill, 20-year  battle to bring real public school choices to Wisconsin families.  They deserve to be heard!    This is the 20th anniversary year of passage of the Wisconsin charter school law.  There is no better time for the legislature to pass AB 549!