State must intervene with underperforming schools

There has been an abundance of media coverage the last few weeks regarding the school accountability debate that has been revived in the State Legislature’s new session.

Most of this coverage has centered on the differences in approach between the Senate, Assembly and the governor. Some of the differences include whether or not to have letter grades; or another board created to oversee the accountability program; how the report card should be created; and whether schools should have the ability to choose a standardized test from a list of national tests or be compelled to administer the test of the Department of Public Instruction’s choice.

First of all, let’s recognize that the vast majority of our schools, whether public or private are high quality. Wisconsin is fortunate to have a strong educational system in place and incredible teachers who are committed to our students’ education. However, we do need a process in place to help our under-performing schools reach the same level of excellence.

The most important debate is how we plan to use the results of the report cards once they are in place, specifically for low-performing schools. Is the letter grade itself enough to facilitate the change necessary to ensure that all of our children, regardless of economic status or geography, have access to the quality education they deserve? Does the state have a responsibility to intervene if the local school board isn’t able to turn the school around? Or do we simply do what we have done for generations and allow these schools to continue to underperform their peers, subjecting generations of children to an education that is inadequate to prepare them for success in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace?

This has been one of the major sticking points between the Senate and the Assembly. The Senate has been reticent in the past to institute any type of interventions, while the Assembly position has been that accountability for results should include measures to help turn the schools around.

Speaking for myself, I cannot begin to understand how a letter grade alone would be a catalyst for the kind of change necessary to spark dramatic improvement.

It’s important to recognize that in most cases, the fact that a school is under-performing is not a secret. With or without the report cards, parents and communities are intimately acquainted with their local schools. Even when armed with this information these schools still open every day, kids walk through their doors, and the cycle of low performance continues. If it isn’t because of lack of information, could it be for lack of acceptable alternatives? Possibly, but I don’t believe that’s ultimately the case.

All one has to do is look at the city of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Public School district for proof. For years now, there have been many options available for parents of children in low-performing schools in MPS. Open enrollment is one of those options, and many parents in Milwaukee exercise that option to try to find a better school for their child. The school choice program is another option, and each year parents utilize that program in hopes that their child will receive a better education.

So if information and options are all that is needed, then it would stand to reason that the under-performing schools in Milwaukee would be hemorrhaging students and the lowest-performing schools would either be out of students, or would be dramatically improving their results. This clearly is not the case.

It is unconscionable to me that we would look at the children left at these schools and tell them that by slapping a grade on their school, we have somehow accomplished something. They deserve more, and you should expect more for the hard-earned money you invest in your school.

The Assembly School Improvement bill (AB1) would go that extra mile to put some structure in place to help those low-performing schools. The first step is a helping hand, ensuring that the school has an improvement plan in place and the expertise and assistance to implement it. We truly believe that in a vast majority of cases, this will provide what is needed to get the school on the right track. However, in the case where the school has not been able to show that the students are making any growth after four years, something more dramatic needs to happen. What that ultimately will be is still being debated and there may be more changes to AB1 in the near future, but I do believe there must ultimately be a more dramatic shakeup in those cases.

The Assembly will take our time to ensure that we get it right, but what we won’t do is walk away from this without some real reform. We are not interested in simply checking the box and telling the public that all schools are now accountable without some real accountability in place. Over the coming days and weeks the Committee will be working on changes to the bill, will review public testimony to garner valuable input. I want to specifically thank Rep. Thiesfeldt, chair of the Education Committee, and the rest of the committee members for all of their work on this issue. Their work has been invaluable. Rest assured that Assembly Republicans will continue to do everything we can to make sure that every child has access to a world-class education.

Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) is the Assembly majority leader.

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