Charting a Charter School Vote
By Robert Schroeder
As the Wisconsin legislature recently debated another bill that would seismically ripple through the state's education system, National Louis University's Todd Price, Ph.D., was again in the thick of it.
Wisconsin Senate Bill 22 would have created a charter school board to oversee the expansion of charter schools in the state; there is little doubt the appointees would be political as appointed by the Governor, Speaker of the House, and President of the Senate. The bill recently failed to garner enough votes to exit out of committee for a full Senate vote, and the measure has been tabled until at least January 2012.
As another round of contentious hearings took place on Nov. 1, with observers escorted out of the Senate chambers for carrying signs and cameras, Price, associate professor in the National College of Education, was meeting with his representatives, Representative Pete Barca (D-64th) and Senator Robert Wirch (D-22nd), to share his expert analysis on the impact of the bill's passage.
"These committees are very receptive to teacher educators, but usually I'm the only one there," Price said. "It's a fretful, difficult time to be involved with pressing legislation that affects millions of students."
Facing a receptive committee is one thing; being prepared to face pointed questions is another. Price said the complicated procedural route a bill takes through committee makes citizen participation unduly difficult. For example, committee votes can be announced a minimum of 18 hours in advance; the announcement for SB 22 came at 5 p.m. on Monday, October 31. However, the committee is not obliged to vote once the 18-hour waiting period has passed. However, as a vote is approved by committee, the full legislature vote could follow almost immediately. Price journeyed from the Milwaukee area to the Statehouse in Madison with little idea of what to expect.
"It's a very interesting education into the democratic process and how fragile it is sometimes, and how responsive it is when you hustle," Price said.
After meeting with his representatives, Price committed to providing his expert talking points within 24 hours. These points included:
-Wariness over the political nature of the charter board. Appointed by three politicians, regardless of party, the board figured to be sympathetic to certain political leanings.
-The creation of two separate school systems, public and charter. The charter board would have significant autonomy over curriculum, evaluation and certification standards. Given current controversies surrounding methods of teacher evaluation (test scores versus more qualitative measures), the creation of two separate evaluation systems could spawn confusion and inefficiency in teacher professional development. If the charter board was granted the right to certify its own teachers, the education and preparation of teacher candidates would need to accomodate for two different tracks.
-Charter school employees would not be considered state or local employees, yet would draw from the state retirement system and other state programs. Legally, Price said, the meaning of their status is murky.
-Navigability of the charter school system. Price was concerned that parents, confused enough by the public school system, will effectively have to learn two systems in order to opt out of one and in to another.
"I feel obliged to do this because I'm worried about the lack of teacher input on a number of these issues," Price said. "The legislators are very welcoming of either opposing sides, so much so that every time I've done a hearing they have given me more time to speak on these issues as well as requesting reports, URLs, data, and information."
The result, however, is that the pressure for delivery and the burden of proof largely rests with the constituents. With short informatory and voting periods, Price said ordinary citizens are challenged to create a cohesive, research-based argument in such a short period of time.