Assembly Republicans backing off from forcing failing schools to become charters

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MADISON, Wisconsin — Assembly Republicans are backing off their plan to force failing public schools to be converted into independent charter schools in an effort to reach a deal with Gov. Scott Walker and state senators who opposed such a penalty.

The chief sponsor of the school accountability bill in the Assembly, Education Committee Chairman Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he's now looking at requiring failing schools to choose from a variety of sanctions.

The Legislature has struggled for years to reach agreement on how to measure and report the performance of public, charter and private voucher schools. Some of the biggest areas of disagreement are whether all schools receiving public money should take the same test to measure student performance, how that material should be presented, and whether any should face sanctions.

Thiesfeldt said Thursday he's going to propose that failing schools, after a period of years, be required to choose from three to five sanctions. Those could include forcing the school to convert into an independent charter, with the option of reverting back to a public school, and firing teachers and administrators, Thiesfeldt said. He said the particulars of the various options, including how many there will be, are still being discussed.

Any type of sanction for public schools has run into stiff opposition from public school advocates. Also, Walker and Senate Republicans have put forward alternate school accountability proposals that don't have sanctions for failing public schools. Both the Senate and Assembly bills would stop public funding for failing private schools in the voucher program, but Walker is not proposing that penalty.

Thiesfeldt acknowledged that his latest approach may not be enough to sway those wary of imposing sanctions on public schools.

"I suspect we still may be at a stalemate, but that doesn't mean we're not going to push forward," Thiesfeldt said. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has reiterated several times that any accountability bill passed must include sanctions, saying taking action without penalties would be "political theater."

The better approach is to make sure struggling schools have the resources they need to succeed, rather than punishment, said Republican Sen. Paul Farrow, the lead sponsor of the Senate's bill. He said the Senate and the Assembly were "fundamentally in a different place" on the issue.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker said in his State of the State speech, and in comments afterward, that instead of sanctions he believed parents should be presented with as much information about schools as possible so they could make the best choice for their children. Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick reiterated that stance in an email to The Associated Press on Thursday.

"Governor Walker trusts parents to make the best decisions for their children based on the facts and thinks it's most important to give parents the ability to see objective and comparable data for any school," she wrote.

Lawmakers and the governor are far apart on other school accountability issues as well.

Walker and the Assembly want to impose letter grades on schools, but the Senate bill would keep the current system of placing schools into broad performance categories. Walker and the Assembly want to allow schools to choose from multiple tests to assess student performance, but the Senate version would require one test.

Both Thiesfeldt and Farrow said they hoped to vote on a bill within the next month.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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