Thursday, May 31, 2007

Finally, some accountability

Wisconsin's class size reduction program, SAGE, provides extra state aid to schools serving low-income students that maintain a maximum pupil/teacher ratio of 15:1 in K5-3rd grade classrooms. Apparently the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has been granting waivers for schools unable to meet the specified ratios during their first year or two of participation. Representative Kitty Rhoades, co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, got wind of the waivers and moved to audit the program, which failed to pass out of committee. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel now reports that DPI will no longer grant waivers and has denied the waiver requests of several school districts that had previously received SAGE funds.

The extra aid offered by the SAGE program became even more attractive to school districts a year ago when the legislature passed SB 618, lifting the cap on the number of private school vouchers. As a political compromise, that new law also increased the per-pupil SAGE amount from $2,000 per low-income student to $2,250. The irony is that the voucher program, which provides $6,501 per low-income pupil, is almost completely devoid of educational accountability and does not specify any classroom practices or operations, at any rate. Based on the Forum's annual survey of voucher schools, half of participating voucher schools have pupil/teacher ratios larger than the 15:1 required by SAGE, including two schools with 27:1 ratios. Meanwhile, the voucher program has not been audited since the 1999-2000 school year.

Accountability for taxpayers is not a sometimes proposition. Audit threat or not, DPI should probably not have been granting class size waivers for a program intended to reduce class size. Regular audits are good practice, in general, and should be utilized as resources allow. Perhaps it's time for another audit of the voucher program.

But even more important, shouldn't we be sending a consistent message to our schools, both public and private? If lawmakers have decided that the optimal learning environment for low-income students is in a small class, then why not encourage this environment in the voucher program, which is specifically intended for low-income students?

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