Wisconsin lawmakers are locked in a largely partisan dispute over the future of online instruction in that state.

The Wisconsin General Assembly voted 53-44 on Feb. 28 to keep the state’s online public schools open next fall. However, lawmakers continue to disagree over how many students should be allowed to enroll. If there’s no deal in the next two weeks, the state’s 12 virtual schools could shut down, because an appeals court has ordered that their state funds be cut off.

According to a ruling by the appeals court in December, virtual schools violate Wisconsin state laws on teacher licensing, open enrollment, and charter schools. If lawmakers don’t reach an agreement, a dozen virtual schools enrolling 3,500 children will begin closing.

Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat backed by the state’s largest teacher’s union, has demanded that any bill include an enrollment cap and an audit of the schools to gauge their effectiveness.

Two weeks ago, with the support of Gov. Doyle, the state senate passed virtual-school legislation that would freeze enrollment levels for two years while the schools were studied. Under the senate bill, enrollment gradually could increase to 4,500 in 2014.

State representative Brett Davis and Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, both Republicans, sent a letter to Doyle on Feb. 27 outlining a compromise: They’ll agree to cap enrollment at 1 percent of all students in Wisconsin’s K-12 public schools, or about 8,700 students. Siblings would be exempt from the cap. They also agreed to an audit of the state’s virtual schools.

This cap is 2.5 times larger than what Gov. Doyle called for.

Davis says he doesn’t believe in capping enrollment, but he knows Doyle won’t sign anything into law until he gets what he wants.

“I’m a realist,” Davis said. “I want to make sure these schools stay open.”

Yet, Doyle spokeswoman Jessica Erickson said the governor likes the virtual-school legislation passed by the senate as is.

“The governor believes the bill already amended by the senate protects these kids and their siblings and ensures they can remain in their schools while we study the system,” Erickson said.

Other reports say Doyle might be willing to raise the enrollment cap, but not to the 8,700 the GOP wants. Doyle has hinted he would veto the Republicans’ compromise.

Davis and Huebsch said in their letter to Doyle that Republicans can’t abide a two-year lockout.

“We believe our offer is a reasonable solution whereby we can save the virtual charter schools, provide an audit of the program, and implement a less restrictive cap,” they wrote.

Rose Fernandez, president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, said Davis and Hubert’s deal is better than the two-year freeze on enrollment Doyle wants.

“You got your cap. You got your audit,” Fernandez said. “Accept bipartisanship and compromise.”

Even if lawmakers reach a deal, not all will be happy with an enrollment cap of any size.

In an editorial written for The Capital Times, Joni Burgin, superintendent of the Grantsburg School District, said her district’s virtual school just opened and would not be able to survive with an enrollment cap.

“Wisconsin still has an achievement gap that leaves poor children, English-language learners, and children of color lagging behind. Closing it must be at the heart of everything we do,” wrote Burgin. “When Wisconsin has school programs that are finally working to narrow that gap, we owe it to our students to keep those programs in place.”

She concluded by saying that politicians who vote for caps on virtual schools “contribute to the dropout problem instead of being a part of the solution.”

Republicans have accused Doyle of being too close to the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union. That group contends virtual schools pull too much money from traditional public schools and brought the lawsuit that has thrown the schools’ future into doubt.

Links:

Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families

Wisconsin Education Association Council