February 15, 2012
Buried in the state budget is a little known provision that opens the door to using state money for private schools.
Under the “voucher program” parents in Milwaukee can send their children to private schools with money from the state. A ‘voucher’ is like a coupon. Parents use state money pay for private school tuition.
The idea was to give residents of poor schools a choice and spur competition – with the hope the public schools would improve. By most measures, this has not happened.
In June the voucher program expanded to Racine. Instead of naming Racine in the new law, the budget authors pulled together four criteria related to property value, cost of educating students, poverty and the size of the city.
By using this wording, the voucher program could be expanded to other cities. The consequences would be a huge drain on state money for public schools at a time when our schools are already struggling. At risk are small rural schools that face high costs because of their small size.
State Superintendent Tony Evers opposes the expansion of this program, He wrote, “To spend hundreds of millions to expand a 20-year-old program that has not improved overall student achievement, while defunding public education, is morally wrong.”
When the state’s budget writing committee voted on the expansion of voucher programs, the State Superintendent warned the state.
“Wisconsin is now set to expand vouchers for private and religious schools, while making a catastrophic $1.6 billion cut in funding for public schools,” said Evers in June.
“Raising taxes on the citizens of Green Bay and Racine in the dead of night, without public hearings or the support of locally elected school officials echoes the type of non-representative, undemocratic actions taken by the English parliament against the America colonists though their stamp and tea taxes,” said Evers. “Is this what we have come to in our great state of Wisconsin? Is this what we should expect from our state leaders?”
Leaders responded by saying their intention was not to expand vouchers to the entire state. They only wanted to expand the program to Racine. But that’s not how the new law was written.
Several school districts are poised to soon meet the criteria set out in the law. Leaders in both the Senate and Assembly publicly stated they would stop this with another bill.
This new bill, introduced last August, would stop further expansion of the program; limiting vouchers to only Milwaukee and Racine. The bill recently passed the Senate. Without the same action by the Assembly, Green Bay and Menasha are set to soon become eligible and Stanley, Boyd and Loyal meet all criteria but one.
A number of other districts could become eligible if student poverty levels continue to rise.
State law is written so once a district becomes eligible the program continues whether or not the district continues to meet the criteria. This means even if the economy improves and family income rises, state money destined for local public schools would continue to be siphoned off for private schools.
Eau Claire, La Crosse, Madison, Beloit, Appleton, Janesville, Kenosha, Waukesha, Sheyboygan, West Allis, Brookfield, Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Wauwatosa and Wausau are among the cities close to the criteria used to open the spigot on the voucher program. The problem will also affect smaller public school districts as public money is drained away for private schools.
Recently my colleagues and I sent a letter to the Majority Leaders in the Assembly asking them to pass the Senate bill that stops the expansion of voucher schools and closes the drain.
Green Bay public school leaders called on the Assembly and the Governor to halt the expansion. Green Bay is set to become the next district with a voucher program if the bill is not passed.
So far Assembly leaders have shown an unwillingness to move the Senate bill. With little time left in two-year Legislative Session, leaders must stand by their commitment to limit this program at a time when public schools across the state can ill afford fewer dollars.