Under Threat: WI Charter Schools

A crucial independent charter school authorizer, the UW System’s Office of Educational Opportunity (OEO), is facing a change in leadership that could threaten the future of independent charter schools. The newest OEO charters are succeeding, but partisan politics now threatens their future.

Wisconsin Right Now reported recently that the UW System has fired OEO Director Vanessa Moran, who was hired in 2020 by former Governor Tommy Thompson during his time as UW System President. In her three years as Director, Moran had significantly increased the number and location of OEO charter schools in order to move Wisconsin from 25th place nationally in charter enrollment.

Governor Evers is expected to make new appointments to the UW Board of Regents this spring. These Regents play a vital role in overseeing the UW System President, who appoints the OEO Director and has final authority on new charter school authorizations. If the UW Board becomes uniformly anti-charter, Wisconsin children will lose high-quality educational options.

What Is a Charter School?

Charter schools exist to provide better academic results by being more flexibly regulated. They are public, non-sectarian schools that are created through a contract between a charter school operator and a charter authorizer. Charter schools are regulated by the Department of Public Instruction but are free from many state regulations and requirements. Charters often use their freedom for innovative or specialized styles like Montessori, STEM, or cultural immersion. In return, charters are held to specific academic standards. The charter authorizer provides oversight to ensure that the school is meeting the standards agreed upon in the charter contract. If not, the authorizer can refuse to renew the contract, likely closing the school.

In Wisconsin, charter schools come in two types. Any school district can authorize new charter schools as part of its district. Independent charter schools, which receive much less funding but have even more freedom and operate as their own school district, can only be authorized by the City of Milwaukee Common Council, the Waukesha County Executive, the Chancellor of any institution in the University of Wisconsin System, the District Board of any technical college, the Board of either tribal college, and the UW System Office of Educational Opportunity. Because many of these institutions have not chartered any schools, OEO has filled the gap to date.

What Is the Office of Educational Opportunity?

OEO was created in the 2015-2017 biennial budget to authorize charter schools. There are currently 10 schools operating under OEO charters.

Lincoln and Adeline, both approved under Moran’s watch, have posted superb reading and math scores despite opening during the pandemic.

OEO consists of the Director and the OEO Advisory Council. When a school applies for a charter, the Director reviews the initial application and, if approved, holds public meetings and collects community input. The application is then reviewed by the OEO Advisory Council, the school organizers are interviewed, and recommendations are sent back to the Director. Following contract negotiations that set the parameters of the charter, the agreement is sent to DPI for review before the UW President can grant final approval. The Director is responsible for executing the charter and overseeing its implementation by the charter school.

Why Is 2023 Crucial for OEO Charter Schools?

UW System President Jay Rothman will select a new OEO Director to replace Vanessa Moran. The position is currently vacant.

The Board of Regents has 18 members, 16 of whom are appointed by the Governor. 14 of the Regents serve staggered, 7-year terms. The 2 other governor-appointed members must be UW System students appointed for 2-year terms.The Regents not appointed by the Governor are the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the President or a designee of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board. Regents appointed by the Governor must be approved by the State Senate.

Over the next 2 years, the terms of all of Governor Scott Walker’s appointments will end and Governor Evers will have the opportunity to select new Regents. Governor Evers will replace Regent Scott Beightol in May 2023, Regents Bob Atwell and Mike Jones in May 2024, and Regent Cris Peterson in May 2025.

In all, Governor Evers will appoint 10 members to the UW Board of Regents over the next 4 years. 4 will replace Walker’s Regents, 3 will replace Evers appointees whose terms have ended, 2 will replace the student Regents, and 1 will fill a vacancy caused by a resignation. As it stands now, Governor Evers’ appointed members of the board hold the majority. There are currently 10 unconfirmed appointed members of the UW Board of Regents. The current Board of Regents is listed here:

Angela AdamsMay 2022 – May 2029EversNo
Robert AtwellMay 2017 – May 2024WalkerYes
Scott BeightolNovember 2018 – May 2023WalkerYes
Amy Blumenfeld BogostMay 2020 – May 2027EversNo
Héctor ColónMarch 2020 – May 2025EversNo
Mike JonesMay 2017 – May 2024WalkerYes
Edmund Manydeeds IIIMay 2019 – May 2026EversYes
John W. MillerMay 2021 – May 2028EversNo
Rodney PaschJuly 2021 – PresentEx Officio
Cris PetersonMay 2018 – May 2025WalkerYes
Dr. Ashok RaiMay 2021 – May 2028EversNo
Jennifer StatonMay 2022 – May 2024 (student)EversNo
Brianna TuckerMay 2021 – May 2023 (student)EversNo
Jill UnderlyJuly 2021 – PresentEx Officio
Dana WachsMay 2022 – May 2029EversNo
Karen WalshMay 2019 – May 2026EversNo
Kyle WeatherlyMay 2020 – May 2027EversNo
VacantTeam ending May 2023

Although the Regents do not have a formal role in OEO’s charter school approval process, Regents influence the selection of the new Director. A hostile Director could opt out of federal charter school funding grants, not approve new charter applications, or fail to renew existing charter schools’ contracts. Thus, confirming high-quality appointees is essential to carrying out the duties entrusted to OEO: expanding access to high-quality, innovative charter options for children.