Wisconsin’s 16 technical colleges could establish independent charter high schools staffed by college instructors, under a proposal being circulated by two Republican lawmakers that aims to better prepare students for the workforce.
Rep. Tom Weatherston (R-Racine) says charter high schools focused on occupational education or technology could attract students who would not otherwise be college-bound and help them attain the skills Wisconsin employers need.
His vision, outlined in a draft bill he and Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) are circulating for cosponsorship, is to allow students to attend a charter high school run by the tech college for four years, then continue in the college to earn an associate degree after just one more year.
“There are a lot of young people in my district lacking the knowledge that technical education is out there,” Weatherston said. “Especially with the current systems, they’re required to graduate high school before they can get into technical programs.”
Options already exist for Wisconsin high school students to take classes at technical colleges, though Weatherston counters that some districts don’t let students participate in them.
More broadly, the potential bill would be the latest proposal aimed at expanding public charter schools in Wisconsin that operate independently of traditional school districts — something public-school supporters have opposed.
Gov. Scott Walker’s 2015-’17 budget proposal calls for creating a different avenue to spawn more independent charter schools: a new state board that would authorize nonprofit entities to oversee such schools around the state.
He made the same proposal in his previous biennial budget.
A failed Republican-backed bill last session would have allowed all the University of Wisconsin System campuses, plus technical colleges and regional state education agencies to approve operators to open charter schools.
Generally, teachers unions and many district administrators are not on board with these ideas. That’s because independent charter schools are public schools run like small businesses, with nonunion employees that don’t answer to local school boards.
Critics say that the schools divert students, and by extension, state revenue, away from traditional public schools they would have otherwise attended.
Advocates say without so much government bureaucracy, independent charters can be more innovative than a typical public school.
While lots of districts operate their own charter schools staffed by district employees, independent charters exist only around the Milwaukee area currently.
Most answer to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee or the City of Milwaukee. State law also allows UW-Parkside to authorize charter schools.
One technical college, Milwaukee Area Technical College, can as well, but MATC has never exercised that authority.
One unusual aspect of the Weatherston-Wanggaard idea is that it would have the tech colleges run the charter high schools themselves, rather than overseeing a charter-school management company to run the potential high school.
The bill would allow instructors at the college to teach at the high school, ostensibly without a state teaching license typically required of K-12 educators.
Weatherston said tech-based charter high schools could offer programming relevant to careers such as dental hygienist or HVAC technician.
He said general education classes could have a technical career focus, such as math for bookkeeping.
“I think we should keep it broad-based and allow the market to drive what kind of curriculum they offer,” he said.
But some educators worry about autonomy.
“Communities deserve to have local control over their schools, and this proposal appears to allow high schools to be dropped into their towns without input,” Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said in a statement Tuesday.
Options already exist for high school students to take occupational or technical education classes at local colleges.
The Legislature last session also approved a new program called Course Options that lets students at all grade levels take up to two classes at a time from approved educational institutions outside their home school, at no cost.
Approved institutions include the University of Wisconsin System institutions and state technical colleges.
Waukesha County Technical College started a special program two years ago that allows local high school seniors to apply to spend a portion of their day taking credit-bearing classes in areas such as welding, metal fabrication, and printing and publishing. Students admitted to the program don’t have to pay for the college classes. State Superintendent Tony Evers is scheduled to visit that program at WCTC Dual Enrollment Academy on Wednesday.
Some districts have even started their own specialty schools to meet that niche. LakeView Technology Academy is a specialty high school in the Kenosha Unified School District that allows students to earn up to the equivalent of one year of tech college credits and one semester of engineering credits upon graduation.
About Erin Richards
Erin Richards covers K-12 education in urban and suburban Milwaukee, as well as state politics related to education issues.
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