Who should determine voucher accountability

It’s good news Wisconsin lawmakers are focusing more on the results of the nation’s oldest voucher program. This week, the chairmen of the Senate and Assembly education committees released a plan that, among other things, would rate the performance of private schools enrolling voucher-bearing students and kick the worst schools out of the program.

But, even though this plan has been two years in the making, it needs more time to marinate. It gives state education chief Tony Evers too much control to develop a report card for schools, and Evers has never been shy about his contempt for school vouchers.

The bill, for instance, requires Evers and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to develop an accountability system that measures schools’ achievement in reading and math, records student growth in those subjects, and judges other matters like college and career readiness and “pupil engagement.” A report card ranges from “significantly exceeds expectations” to “fails to meet expectations,” and private schools that land in the latter category are kicked out of the voucher program.

Let’s be clear, it’s appropriate for the state to take action against private schools that show consistently poor results in core subjects with their voucher-bearing students. Wisconsin’s neighbor, Indiana, also has passed a voucher law that holds participating private schools to account for their performance and keeps them from enrolling new voucher students if their results are sub-par.

But keep in mind that Evers once called the twenty-two-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program “morally wrong.” He shouldn’t have the freedom to weight various aspects of a report card that could mean the life or death of a private school; most private schools that participate in Milwaukee’s voucher program enroll mostly voucher kids, so they have a lot to lose here.

It’s better to empower the legislature to determine how to measure these outcomes. Indiana lawmakers developed a simple and objective device for results-based accountability with their own voucher program. They opted to keep participating private schools from enrolling new voucher students if they score in the lowest of two categories in the state’s accountability system for two consecutive years.

The Wisconsin bill would direct the state Legislative Audit Bureau to annually study DPI’s methodology and report its findings to “the appropriate standing committees of the legislature.” But that kind of check on Evers’s power is too little too late. The mandates of this initiative should come from the deliberations of a legislature, not by the fiat of a hostile superintendent.

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