Charter schools are public, nonsectarian schools created through a businesslike contract or “charter” between the charter governance board and the sponsoring school board or other chartering authority. The charter defines the missions and methods of the charter school. The chartering authority holds the school accountable to its charter.
Throughout the history of charter schools in Wisconsin it has been local school boards which have authorized or sponsored the vast bulk of charter schools in Wisconsin and to which charter schools are accountable. That could be about to change in a big way.
The K-12 budget approved by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) would broadly expand the ability of entities other than school boards to authorize charter schools created independently of local school boards and in direct competition with local schools and would lift geographic restriction on where such “independent charter schools” may be located.
The budget plan approved by the JFC would allow a special assistant to University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross to authorize independent charter schools anywhere in Wisconsin, rather than in just the Milwaukee and Madison school districts as under current law. In addition, the JFC budget plan would also allow all technical college boards and UW chancellors to authorize an independent charter school. Currently, only the chancellors of UW-Milwaukee and UW-Parkside and the boards of Milwaukee Area Technical College and Gateway Technical College in Kenosha can do so.
Specifically, the K-12 budget plan approved by the JFC would:
- Provide that an assistant to the UW System President–known officially as the Director of the Office of Educational Opportunity (OEO), any UW chancellor (in addition to the UW Milwaukee and UW Parkside Chancellors who already have this authority under current law) and any technical college district board (in addition to the Milwaukee and Gateway boards who already have this authority under current law) could contract with a person to operate an independent charter school.
- Delete the current geographic restriction on the districts in which the OEO director may authorize a charter school (currently such schools must be physically located in Milwaukee or Madison).
- Delete current law provisions restricting the geographic location of schools authorized by the Gateway Technical College District Board, the districts in which pupils must reside to attend a school authorized by Gateway Tech, and restricting the programing that must be provided by a school authorized by Gateway Tech.
- Provide that the current law funding mechanism for independent charter schools established by the Director of the OEO and the Gateway Board would also apply to any independent charter school established by any other Chancellor or any technical college board other than Milwaukee. (Under this funding mechanism, the district of residence counts the independent charter school pupils for revenue limits and general aid, and general aid for that district is reduced in an amount equal to payments to the independent charter school for resident pupils enrolled there.
- Maintain the current law funding mechanism for the independent charter schools previously established by the Chancellors of UW-Milwaukee or UW-Parkside unchanged. (Under this funding mechanism, the public school district in which pupils enrolled in these independent charter schools reside does not count these independent charter pupils for revenue limits or general aid. General aid payments for all public school districts in the state are reduced proportionately in an amount equaling total payments to these independent charter schools.)
Under current law, the Director of the OEO may contract for the establishment of independent charter schools located only in school districts with enrollment (membership) over 25,000 pupils (currently only Milwaukee and Madison).
Under current law, the Gateway Technical College District Board may authorize independent charter schools located only within the Gateway Technical College district. Only pupils who reside within the boundaries or the district or in a county adjacent to the Gateway district may attend these charter schools. Further, under current law, the Gateway Board may authorize charter schools only if the school operates high school grades only and provides a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or occupational education and training.
The Wisconsin charter school law gives charter schools freedom from most state rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability for results.