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Strengthening Wisconsin’s Charter School Law

Across the country, support for public charter schools comes from both Democrats and Republicans. Like presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, President Barack Obama has praised public charter schools. Opposition to charter schools also sometimes comes from both parties. In fact, there are still portions of the country where “do not rock the boat” Republicans lock arms with Democrats that oppose charters to block common sense proposals for the expansion of high-quality public charter schools. Unfortunately, that’s the case in Wisconsin. As some of my fellow legislators continue to fight against proven reforms like charter schools, it’s clear to me that the boat needs rocking. During a recent discussion in the Wisconsin Assembly Education Committee, I was astounded when one of my colleagues (who is an educator, no less!) stated that education policy changes are unnecessary in Wisconsin because we outpace many states on our reading, science, and math scores. To me, this logic is flawed. Finding comfort in the fact we outpace other states while the country falls further behind in international rankings does a significant disservice to our students. Despite these hurdles, Wisconsin’s Senator Alberta Darling and I have introduced a bill that makes important changes to our weak charter school law (currently ranked #37 out of 43 by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools). The changes we are proposing will provide more opportunities for Wisconsin’s students. The Assembly version of this bill, AB 549, will be heard in the Assembly Urban Education Committee on Thursday, January 9th. While the bill makes a number of changes, here are two of the most important ones: First, the bill will expand the types of entities that can serve as charter school authorizers.   Right now, the only entities allowed to authorize a charter school are the City of Milwaukee (in the Milwaukee Public School district only), the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Milwaukee (in Milwaukee County or an adjacent county), UW-Parkside (only one school in Racine County or an adjacent county), Milwaukee Area Technical College (they have never exercised the option and can only create a charter school in the Milwaukee Public School district), and local school boards. The bill would expand the authorization agents to also include any of the other 11 UW institutions and campuses, any of the other 15 technical colleges, and any of the state’s 12 Cooperative Educational Service Agencies. This change will better facilitate the creation of autonomous and accountable public charter schools across the state. Second, the bill will revise and clarify Wisconsin’s charter school categories. Currently, Wisconsin has three types of charters:
      1.    Those that are authorized by the City of Milwaukee, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside, and the Milwaukee Area Technical College. These schools have autonomy and are similar to charters in most other states. They are referred to as “2r charters.”
      2.    Those that are authorized by local school boards and employ their own teachers.  These schools have autonomy and are also similar to charters in most other states.  They are referred to as “non-instrumentality charters.”
      3.    Those that are authorized by local school boards and that have their teachers employed by school districts. These schools don’t have much autonomy and are different from charters in most other states.
They are referred to as “instrumentality charters.” This arrangement has created a lot of confusion within the state about public charter schools. In an effort to clarify what a charter school is, our bill requires instrumentality charters to either become non-instrumentality charters or magnet schools, leaving the state with two categories of true charter schools. My passion for education reform stems from my experiences in the military, the business world, and as a father of four. As a military intelligence officer in the United States Army, I am convinced that our greatest national security risk, in the long term, is the complacency with the educational status quo. Charter schools offer innovation and focus on science, technology, engineering and math that can enhance the life experiences of our children. These innovative charter schools can propel our economy beyond the 21st century and ensure our nation’s defenders are not only America’s best and brightest, but also represent the world’s best and brightest. Representative Dale Kooyenga was elected to represent the 14th District for the Wisconsin State Assembly in 2010.