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Assembly task force makes recommendations for helping struggling rural schools

Wisconsin Public Radio

A task force created last year by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to study the challenges facing rural schools in Wisconsin published its findings earlier this month, along with 17 recommendations for possible legislation.

The task force, chaired by state Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander, looked into issues such as declining enrollment, difficulty attracting talented teachers, financial instability and a lag in implementing new technologies. The recommendations they came up with included cost-saving measures like grade sharing among school districts, increasing revenue by exempting one-time technology costs from revenue limits, and loosening some restrictions on teacher licensing.

Two of the recommendations put forth by the group had been voted down by the Assembly during the last legislative session -- specifically, recommendations to “eliminate certain criteria for receiving sparsity aid” and “create a loan forgiveness or grant program for rural teachers.”

Swearingen described the report process as a statewide, bipartisan effort.

“We traveled the state, we toured 12 different rural schools, we had six hearings… Ultimately the report that I issued is a compilation of all the testimony that we heard from the superintendents, from the concerned parents and the taxpayers, from the teachers,” he said.

Some members of the education community are concerned by the prospect of loosening requirements for teacher licensing. State Superintendent Tony Evers told the Marshfield Herald newspaper, “I do not believe changes to our teacher credentialing will resolve the heart of the problem this suggestion is after.”

Swearingen said that changing licensing requirements is only in the idea stage, and wouldn't apply to the entire state.

When it comes to sharing grades between school districts, Swearingen said he sees it as a way to cut costs while keeping schools open.

“These schools are the pride and joy of the community and so there wasn’t much talk about consolidation, for instance,” said Swearingen.

According to Swearingen, some of the challenges facing the districts extend beyond the classroom, particularly when it comes to Internet access.

“In the (Eagle River) school,” he said, “a lot of these kids stay after school and use the facilities in the library, because scarcely five miles from the high school, some of these students are back on dial-up connectivity.”

The suggestions are the result of a bipartisan effort in the Assembly, but the challenge for Swearingen is to now get more legislators and Gov. Scott Walker on board.

“I believe we could potentially get some traction,” said Swearingen. “I think we’ve got the attention of the speaker, of course, and the Assembly … We still have to worry about working with the Senate. We are hoping they’ll be receptive, as well as the governor’s office.”

It won’t be until after fall elections that the issue could be taken up again in the Legislature, which means struggling schools will have to wait at least until 2015 for any possible changes.