- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Independent charter schools could be approved in 146 public school districts across Wisconsin under a provision added to the state budget, an expansion of the program drawing criticism this week from state superintendent Tony Evers and others.

In another change approved by the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee on Friday, money to pay for the students attending the new charter schools would be taken out of aid from the local public school where the student lives. Currently, aid to all public schools is reduced proportionately statewide to pay for running independent charter schools in the Milwaukee area and Racine.

The budget-writing committee is expected to vote on approving the entire two-year spending plan, including the charter school expansion, later this week or next week. It must pass the Senate and Assembly and be signed by Gov. Scott Walker before becoming law.

Backers of expanding independent charter schools include Walker, Republicans who control the budget committee and the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. They argue it would give more choices to parents looking for the best schools for their children.

But opponents, including Evers and Madison Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, said it hurts public schools by diverting money away to schools with no accountability to taxpayers.

“Independent charter schools have no consistent record of improving education for children, but they do drain resources from public schools, without any control in our local community or school board,” Cheatham said in a statement.

Under current law, independent charter schools can be authorized only by the Milwaukee City Council, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College and UW-Parkside.

There are only 22 independent charter schools in the Milwaukee area, with one more in Racine. Collectively, they enrolled 8,400 students in the 2013 school year costing about $69 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

An additional 220 other charter schools with 36,700 students exist throughout Wisconsin, but they are run by local school boards and employ district staff.

Under the expansion, University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross would appoint someone to head a new office to approve independent charter schools in Milwaukee and Madison. Four other authorizers could create charter schools in 144 other districts across the state, according to an analysis by the state Department of Public Instruction.

The College of the Menominee Nation, located about 40 miles west of Green Bay, could authorize them in 15 districts; Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College, in northern Wisconsin near Hayward, could authorize in 19; the Gateway Technical College District Board in Kenosha could authorize in 91; and the Waukesha County executive could authorize in 19.

Independent charter schools are public schools that are run by nonprofit companies and not school districts. They are different from voucher schools, which are private, mostly religious, schools that accept students who meet income qualifications to receive a taxpayer funded subsidy to pay for their tuition and expenses.

The Legislature’s budget committee also voted to expand the voucher program, doing away with the current 1,000-student enrollment cap and also taking money to pay for the students from aid to the public school they are leaving.

Another budget provision calls for an independent commissioner to take control of three of the lowest-performing Milwaukee public schools and allow them to be converted into independent charter schools.

The budget committee did reject a Walker proposal to create a board to authorize new charter school authorizers statewide.

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

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