By CJ Szafir and Libby Sobic

COVID-19 is a massive earthquake to Wisconsin’s K-12 school system. Almost overnight, nearly every student went from learning in a classroom to distance learning — a blend of online and take-home work. Many could thrive in this new environment. And just as many could fall behind, especially those who are already struggling academically, resulting in a worse “summer slide.”

Policymakers must be ready for the aftermath. Many schools will be better prepared to offer virtual courses as a result of the 2020 spring. But racial and income achievement gaps are also likely to widen with students experiencing a “lost” spring. The upcoming school year 2020–2021 will be crucial towards getting those students back on track.

Fortunately, there is a bill currently in the Wisconsin Senate (SB 789) — Expanding Course Access — that can better equip families and Wisconsin’s K-12 system for what comes next.

SB 789, which improves upon the outdated “Part-Time Open Enrollment” program — allows any elementary, middle, or high school student to take up to two courses at any other school, including public, public charter, and private. And this happens all without the student ever dis-enrolling from their school. This could allow students to take courses at any nearby school “in-person” — or at a school across the state “virtually.” SB 789, led by Senator Alberta Darling and Representative Jeremy Thiesfeldt, received bipartisan support in its passage in the Assembly and now awaits a vote in the Senate.

Even before COVID, Wisconsin had a course access problem. Too many students in rural and urban K-12 schools simply do not have access to important courses. 60% of public high schools in Wisconsin do not offer intro computer science. Surveying AP courses offered at all traditional Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) high schools, 95% do not offer computer science, 84% do not offer economics, and 84% do not offer physics. In Northeastern Wisconsin, a survey of high schools found that 100% do not offer Spanish or economics, and 78% do not offer government or computer science. All of this is directly related to Wisconsin’s K-12 educational woes — struggling urban and rural schools, major racial achievement gaps, and too many graduates not equipped for the workforce.

Wisconsin’s current “Part-Time Open Enrollment Program” (aka Course Choice) is antiquated because it unfairly limits student participation and provides little to no easily accessible information to parents. SB 789 knocks down those barriers. It allows any public school student to participate in the program and opens it up to students at public charter and private schools. It also repeals the laws that prevent collaboration between traditional public, public charter, and private schools by allowing private schools to opt in. And it gives parents access to information about what schools offer what courses.

For example, a student in Oconto public schools could apply to take an online course — say computer science, physics, or AP Economics at Racine Unified, Madison Metropolitan, or a private school in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The course offering will be posted on the school and DPI website. The student would not have to dis-enroll from their local school and could take the course at home or at the local school’s library. The money follows the student with the receiving school billing the local school — who is not educating the child for that hour.

This was always common-sense K-12 public policy, which is why SB 789 has strong support from the business community, school leaders, and graduates of public and private schools. Yet, the bill should be part of any COVID K-12 education recovery plan. More Wisconsin students than ever are experiencing blended learning, expanding the educational horizon for thousands of children. But the policy environment must be updated for these opportunities to be fully realized. Fortunately SB 789 does just that.

CJ Szafir is the Executive Vice President of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Libby Sobic is the Director & Legal Counsel of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.