Educators and educational organizations throughout Wisconsin responded immediately on May 21 upon learning that the Joint Finance Committee, voting along party lines the night of May 20, opened the door to an expansion of the private school voucher program.
“This must have felt like Christmas morning for Wisconsin advocates for taxpayer-funded private school vouchers,” said John Forester, director of government relations for the School Administrators Alliance (SAA). “They got to unwrap a wide-open statewide voucher expansion and a brand new special needs voucher program. Clearly, this is the best education budget that millions of dollars in largely out-of-state political contributions can buy. And it didn’t seem to bother majority Republicans one bit that this voucher expansion will drive up local property taxes.”
“I am troubled that the Joint Finance Committee spent its time and effort designing a plan that erodes the basic foundation of Wisconsin’s public school system,” said State Superintendent Tony Evers in a statement. “If we want all students to achieve, we cannot continue to ask our public schools to do more with less. The eventual outcome of that exercise will be two systems of public schools: those in local communities that can afford to provide a quality education through referendum and those that cannot.”
“The Republican public education budget, designed by the governor and politicians to pay back voucher lobbyists for campaign cash, represents the worst of the worst for students and Wisconsin Public Schools,” said Wisconsin Education Association Council President Betsy Kippers. “At the same time they’re at the front door of the schoolhouse boasting that they’re putting money inside, they’re sneaking money out the back door to subsidize private schools. On top of that, they’re lowering teacher quality to allow someone with only a high school diploma to teach our children. Citizens will not stand for this assault on public schools.”
Here are some of the proposals that the 12 Republicans on the 16-member Joint Finance Committee voted for:
• Rejected a $127 million cut in public school funding next year as proposed by Gov. Scott Walker, then added $100 per student in funding for the second year, an increase of about $69 million above current spending.
• Removed the cap on statewide vouchers and prohibited districts from levying to replace lost state aid.
• Created a special needs voucher program.
• Opened the door for operators of privately run charter schools to open new schools under conditions specified by the legislature
• Put struggling public schools in Milwaukee under the control of a commissioner appointed by the county administrator to convert them to voucher or charter schools.
• Provided for licensure of individuals with minimal qualifications, some with little more than a high school diploma, to teach in public schools.
• Eliminated common core standards.
• Required passing a civics exam to graduate from high school.
Representative Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) issued a statement regarding the committee rejecting proposed cuts to public education and investing more than $200 million over the biennium in Wisconsin’s K-12 schools:
“As a parent of three and a longtime school board member in our community, I know firsthand the importance of investing in our public education system. Coming into this office, I’ve made finding ways to invest in K-12 education my top priority. I am proud to say that this budget will not only restore the proposed funding by $150 per pupil in the first year of the biennium, but it adds an extra $100 per pupil in the second year. That’s an added investment of $200 million over the course of the biennium.”
But in a telephone call Kitchens said he was disappointed with the vote on vouchers.
“I’m not a real supporter of vouchers,” he said. “It does nothing for my district, but there are areas of the state that believe in it strongly. It is really unpopular in my area and it cuts across party lines.”
Kitchens said he thinks the wiser private schools are not going to rely too much on the voucher program.
“If I were running a private schoo1, I’d stay away from the voucher program,” he said. “Down the line, they’ll cut the funding and tell you more and more how to run your school. I think they should be really careful.”
Kitchens said the number of students involved in the voucher program is a pretty small percentage of the state’s school-age children, and added that the program is not going away.
“It is so entrenched, especially in Milwaukee and Racine,” he said.
For his part, Kitchens said he would work for greater accountability from private schools that accept public money.