This is a question that I am hearing, and many legislators are hearing from the instrumentality charter schools across the state. The answer is absolutely not, and to the contrary, AB 549 will strengthen charter schools and provide charter school parents and students with a stronger, reliable education.
First, to be absolutely clear, AB549 would not do away with any existing charter schools in the state. Charter schools will NOT be forced to close. Schools would absolutely be able to continue to operate (assuming both you and your school board continue to want to be in partnership) through the term of your contract.
Under the bill currently under review, when a school renews its contract, it can choose whether to remain a charter school under the new definition or to simply no longer be called a “charter school,” and would instead be referred to as a school district “program” or “magnet school.” If the school chooses the latter, it would be seamless from the perspective of the students but would do away with the requirements of a charter school. Actually, school districts do not need the charter school law to open and operate these innovative instrumentality schools. The instrumentality statute simply adds more red tape than necessary for these schools to operate.
Another important point I want to make: the WCSA knows that there are lots of great instrumentality charter schools operating around the state. Many, many great schools in Wisconsin are intrumentalities. The intent of AB549 is NOT to do away with these great schools, but to help them do what charter schools were intended to do--innovate.
If the school chooses to remain a charter school, it would need to be a non-instrumentality of the district. This means that the Parents and Governing Board control the school and not the school district. Teachers, curriculum and budget are in the hands of those that have a vested, not elected, interest in their children’s education. This is how charter schools can innovate, outside of the district so that they can do things differently and independently. This is also why and how charter schools are more accountable—the Governing Board is responsible for the school and held accountable for its success. If the Governing Board does not have control over those key items—teachers, budget, curriculum and operations—how can they be responsible for its success?
Parents seek charter schools because they want something different. How can they find something different in a school, if it is controlled by the same district, employing the same teachers, and using the same books and curriculum as the numerous other schools in the district? If we are going to truly reform education in Wisconsin, we need clarity and transparency to validate and uphold what a true charter school is. Wisconsin charter schools are not considered true charter schools in the eyes of the federal government or any of the 42 other states with charter schools laws and the District of Columbia. Schools that are receiving federal grants are in jeopardy of not receiving future funds. Most school districts have and will, choose to close the charter school at that point and displace the hundreds of kids that had found success in that school.
As Todd Ziebarth from the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools reported, “the bottom line is that Wisconsin School districts often open instrumentality charter schools – schools that lack the autonomy and performance-based accountability at the heart of the charter school concept - in order to receive federal grant dollars and close them after the grants run out. In fact, the closure rate for charters in Wisconsin is almost three times the national closure rate: 34% vs. 13%. Furthermore, only three states had more closures between 2007-08 and 2011-12, all of which had significantly more charters and substantially lower closure rates:
WI: 83 charters closed. 243 charters were open (34% closure rate).
CA: 134 charters closed, but 1,065 charters were open (12% closure rate).
AZ: 85 charters closed, but 535 charters were open (16% closure rate).
FL: 83 charters closed, but 583 charters were open (14% closure rate).
We support the closure of low-performing charters. That's not what's happening in Wisconsin, though. Districts are creating charters with little autonomy and performance-based accountability, receiving federal grants for them, and closing them after the grants run out no matter the performance of the schools. It is a much better use of taxpayer dollars to invest them in new public schools that will become viable institutions in their communities (like independent charter schools and non-instrumentality charter schools), instead of in programs that will close soon after the grant money runs out.”
So, if we want to ensure the future success of these schools, the law needs to clearly define a charter school as AB 549 does.
As you likely realize, in most cases it would have been nearly impossible to start-up a charter school without a planning and/or implementation grant. And we already know the federal government is unlikely to continue to funnel funds to Wisconsin for charter schools that are not true, autonomous charters. For these reasons, it is important that Wisconsin updates their law and allows charter schools to operate and educate “outside the box”.
If AB 549 passes, instrumentality schools and their school district have several options:
1) continue to operate the school exactly as is, but name it a "program" of the district once a school’s current contract is up for renewal
2) continue to operate the school as is, but take on the new moniker in AB549 (magnet school) once a school’s current contract is up for renewal
3) renegotiate their current contract to be a non-instrumentality charter school of the district to be effective the date of your current contract renewal date, or as soon as a school could negotiate this new contract (in which case an instrumentality would still be considered a charter school)
4) establish a contract with one of the new authorizers proposed in AB549 and run the school as an independent charter school.
Legislators, teachers and the public are only hearing from one side on this issue. And with every controversial issue, the information is presented to bolster one side. WCSA does not have the ability to reach district teachers and parents and share the other side. We hope that educators, parents and legislators take the time to find the correct information, and to think about the key role that charter schools play in our overall efforts and constitutional right to provide a quality, tuition-free education to our children.