- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin Senate Republicans introduced a drastically different school accountability bill Tuesday from the one being fast-tracked by their GOP colleagues in the Assembly, setting up a conflict between the two houses on an issue that Gov. Scott Walker has said he wants to see acted on quickly.

The Legislature has tried unsuccessfully for years to work out how to deal with underperforming schools, and how to treat private schools that accept students using taxpayer-funded vouchers. Walker and Republican legislative leaders said addressing the issue is a priority this year, and the Assembly approach was the first bill introduced this session.

Walker, in his State of the State speech delivered just hours after the Senate bill was unveiled, called on the Legislature to pass a bill “ensuring objective information is available for each and every school receiving public funds in this state.”

The hard part is what that looks like.

One of biggest areas of disagreement between the Senate and Assembly is how to punish public schools that are deemed to be failing over a period of years. The Senate would impose no sanctions, while the Assembly wants to force the schools to become independent charter schools.

“We don’t have, as everybody’s been saying, the hammer in the public schools,” said the Senate bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Village of Pewaukee.

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, who worked with Farrow on the bill, said failing public schools would not be allowed to skate by.

“We’re shining a light on those schools and that light is not going to go off until they improve,” he said at a hastily called news conference.

The Senate bill would also require students in public, private and charter schools to take the same test to determine how well they are performing. The Assembly bill would allow for up to four different tests.

Farrow said he’s a strong advocate for having multiple tests and “I would love to see it in there.”

In another major difference, the Senate bill would create a separate board at the state Department of Administration to oversee private schools that accept students using taxpayer-funded vouchers. The Assembly bill has one board within the Department of Public Instruction to oversee all schools.

The Assembly bill would also assign letter grades to schools; the Senate version would not.

Farrow said he believed the Senate bill was more constitutionally sound and less likely to be subject to a lawsuit than the Assembly version.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, speaking to reporters just before the Senate unveiled its bill, said Republicans in both chambers may have to convene a rarely used conference committee to work out differences between the proposals.

Typically, a conference committee is used only when Democrats control one chamber, Republicans the other, and they can’t reach a deal.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald rejected the possibility of a conference committee.

“I think that would be kind of foolish,” he said. Republicans will be able to work out their differences on the bill without doing that, he said.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Jennifer Shilling said the Senate bill appears to be better than the Assembly version.

Jim Bender, president of the pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin, did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the Senate measure.

The Assembly bill is scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday, a week after it was introduced. Farrow said he hoped to have a hearing on the Senate bill in a couple weeks.


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

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