School Choice & Charters

More on Montana Charters, Wisconsin Vouchers, and Iowa Teachers

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 15, 2013 3 min read
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As you might anticipate, a roundup of K-12 policy activity in statehouses doesn’t include every quote or every piece of every storyline that it could have, including some material that deserves to see the light of day in some form. Here’s some state-level news and reaction that I didn’t manage to get into my April 12 piece:

• As I touch on in my story, GOP Wisconsin state Sen. Glenn Grothman’s problem isn’t necessarily with the voucher expansion plan from fellow Republican Gov. Scott Walker itself, since his tax-credit plan is a complement to it, not a replacement. But he said he is largely disappointed with Walker for requiring that schools receiving voucher funds also administer the standardized state test. He said he was afraid that private-school parents would see their children, because of the standardized testing requirement, subjected to “left-wing curriculum” from people whose politics, he said, could be comparable to those of a University of Wisconsin-Madison philosophy professor (that is to say, in his mind, disturbingly liberal).

“He is doing nothing to help parents who want to send their children to schools that won’t to be subject to state tests,” Grothman said, adding that the growth of charters in Wisconsin would also directly threaten such private schools that are attractive to many parents.

Grothman’s plan would provide a $1,500 per-student tax credit for students in grades K-8, and $2,500 per student in grades 9-12.

• I spoke about the push in Montana for both charter schools and tax credits for private schools with Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, a Democrat who was re-elected last November. She said that the state experienced a lobbying effort for charters and tax credits this year “like we haven’t seen before,” from groups like the National Association for Public Charter Schools and the Montana Family Foundation, respectively. But she also ascribed the activity this year to “envy” on the part of GOP lawmakers who attend conferences and otherwise hear about school choice and charters in other parts of the country.

Juneau also argued that when people say these policies will promote “innovation” in Montana, they’re missing out on what the state is already doing. For example, enrollment in the Montana Digital Academy, she said, has been growing, and the online platform also includes options for students who are home-schooled. Some districts have switched to four-day weeks, Juneau said, because they work better for their conditions. Indeed, Juneau stressed that Montana in general heavily emphasizes local control and already has a strong private-school network.

“We don’t stop those types of efforts. Our main point is, don’t take public funds to fund those private efforts,” she said. “We are different than a lot of other states.”

After my interview with Juneau on April 8, it turned out that charter advocates in Montana will have to wait at least another year, since the legislative bill allowing them was tabled last week. Tax-credit proposals are still alive, but Juneau said Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, would veto them.

• On the Iowa legislation that would increase teacher pay by several thousand dollars for each teacher per year, and has the backing of GOP Gov. Terry Branstad, Mike Cormack, the state education department’s policy liaison, told me that part of the debate about the proposed state K-12 funding increases would be whether districts could choose to decline the additional state aid. That choice would be based on whether or not they did not want to implement teacher leader and mentor programs in their schools, a key component of the legislative package.

The Iowa House has previously advocated for this option as a way to give local districts greater autonomy, although like the Senate it has agreed to boost basic education aid (by about $305 per student, compared to a $400 increase in the Senate-approved bill).

Another discussion about the teacher mentor and leader programs, Cormack noted, is whether there will be enough money left over from these programs to cover the classroom needs. The problem is that teachers who enter such programs won’t be able to spend as much time in the classroom— top “teacher leaders” will cut their actual teaching time in half when they earn that designation, he said, and their classroom work has to be covered by somebody, and paid for somehow. That will create a new cost for districts, and legislators were hashing out exactly how the dueling bills would or would not cover it.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.