Racine Students Gather to Show Support for School Choice
Madison - Gov. Scott Walker is proposing increasing by at least 9% the taxpayer funding provided to private and religious voucher schools - an increase many times larger in percentage terms than the increase in state tax money proposed for public schools.
The increase in funding for existing voucher schools in Milwaukee and Racine, the first since 2009, comes as the Republican governor seeks to expand the program to nine new districts, including Waukesha, West Allis-West Milwaukee and Madison. Walker is also proposingallowing special-needs students from around the state to attend private schools at taxpayer expense.
Even after the proposed increase to voucher funding and the substantial cuts Walker and lawmakers approved for public schools in 2011, the aid provided to voucher schools would still be substantially less on a per-pupil basis than the overall state and local taxes provided to public schools.
But to provide the bigger increase, it appears that the Republican governor would need to persuade lawmakers to break a linkage in state law that currently ties the percentage increase in aid to voucher schools to the percentage increase in state general aid given to public schools.
A spokesman for Walker had no immediate comment. But in a statement, the governor said he wanted to give options to students stuck in poorly performing schools.
"While it is our goal to help struggling schools succeed, we need to make sure students and parents can choose the best option and make sure each child receives a truly great education," Walker said in his statement.
Walker's voucher school proposals still must be approved by skeptical Republican senators who blocked some of his voucher proposals two years ago and who are already questioning some of his latest expansion plans. The great majority of Democratic lawmakers are certain to oppose them.
"This is phase one of a wide-open school voucher program for the state," said Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah). "The governor didn't respect the thoughts of about eight or 10 Republican senators who didn't want it in the budget."
Ellis wants to require that a binding local referendum be held for each district before students are allowed to attend voucher schools. He said he was "totally opposed" to the proposal on special-needs students because private schools could agree to take certain special needs students while leaving the costliest and most difficult students to educate in public schools.
The governor's proposed budget would increase state aid to kindergarten-through-eighth-grade voucher schools in the 2014-'15 school year to $7,050 per pupil from $6,442, an increase of $608 per pupil, or 9.4%. For voucher high schools, the per-pupil aid would rise to $7,856, an increase of $1,414, or 21.9%. Districts like Milwaukee Public Schools get substantially more in public tax dollars for educating students.
For public schools, Walker is proposing a 1% increase in state general aid, though he has also proposed several other increases in state money for specific items.
But Walker is also rejecting an increase in the state-imposed cap in revenues that public schools are allowed to raise from both the state and local property taxpayers. That means that school districts would have to hold a referendum to spend any more in public money than they do now.
"If the revenue cap does not go up then there is no new money going to schools no matter how much aid (increases). The increase in school funding simply goes to property taxpayers not into the classroom," said a statement from David Ewald, a former superintendent of the South Milwaukee School District and board member of the liberal Institute for Wisconsin's Future.
Walker's proposed increase in state general aid for public schools would be $129.2 million over two years. For the much smaller system of voucher schools, the increase would be $73 million in state and local money.
Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, acknowledged that Walker's proposal would require repealing current state law requiring the percentage increase in state general school aid to be the same as the increase given to voucher schools. But he said that over the last decade funding for public and voucher schools hasn't always moved in tandem and that private schools' state aid hasn't kept up with inflation during that time.
"I would argue it's been delinked the whole time," Bender said. "We've been flat for a decade."
Under Walker's proposal, districts would be allowed to have voucher programs if they have at least 4,000 students and two school buildings receiving a grade of "fails to meet expectations" or "meets few expectations" on state report cards.
Two years ago, Walker expanded the school voucher program in Milwaukee and moved it for the first time beyond the borders of the state's largest city by establishing a program in eastern Racine County to provide taxpayer money to that city's private schools. But the governor failed to expand the program to Green Bay and Beloit, thwarted by a bloc of Republican senators who are already saying they will oppose Walker's latest school choice proposal.
Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, expressed concerns about the proposed expansion to The Associated Press.
"That's his proposal and we'll see what the Legislature does when we get through with the budget," Olsen said.
Like Ellis, Olsen backs the idea of holding local referendums to decide whether expansions can happen. Walker opposes a referendum requirement, according to his spokesman, Cullen Werwie.
Republicans have an 18-15 majority in the Senate, and losing two Republican senators would likely kill the proposal. Walker's decision to include voucher expansion in his budget, and not as a separate bill, makes it easier to pass as part of the larger spending package.
Because Walker's criteria for qualifying are not static, the number of new districts that would eventually be allowed in isn't clear. Wisconsin has 42 districts with at least 4,000 students, but only nine have at least two schools with a failing grade. They are Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha, and West Allis-West Milwaukee.
The expansion would start small. This fall, just 500 students around the state could attend private schools at taxpayer expense. That would increase to 1,000 the next year, and there would be no cap after that. The initial caps do not apply to Milwaukee and eastern Racine County, where voucher programs are already in place.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.