Private School Vouchers Hit Door County

Southern Door and Sturgeon Bay schools will collectively see more than $23,000 of their state aid shift to private schools outside of Door County this year under the expanded school voucher program.

In the Southern Door School District, $15,720 of public funds will be allocated to private schools, and in the Sturgeon Bay School District, $7,860 will be allocated to private schools.

But state officials and those leading the school districts disagree on what this means for Door County.

“I do think that it is a tiny percentage of our school budget,” said Representative Joel Kitchens, who spent 13 years as president of the Sturgeon Bay School Board. “Sometimes it gets overblown. It’s less than one percent of education spending. In our area, it has a pretty minimal effect.”

Kitchens admits the school funding formula is complicated and only through his experience on the school board and on the state’s Committee on Education is he able to wrap his head around it.

But officials at local school districts disagree with Kitchens, believing that this is going to strip public education of much needed funding.

“All Door County schools will be affected with the change in legislation in this summer’s state budget, regardless of whether they have a voucher school in their district or not. So Southern Door and Sturgeon Bay are affected because we must have students attending voucher schools in other counties,” said Southern Door Superintendent Patti Vickman in an email.

Vouchers are set at $7,214 for kindergarten through eighth grade and $7,860 for high school students. One Sturgeon Bay High School and two Southern Door High School students are now receiving a voucher to attend private schools.

“In terms of any direct impact, if it’s one student, that’s not going to have a significant budgetary impact,” said Sturgeon Bay School Board President John Hauser. Hauser was not aware that a student within district limits was attending a private school, likely because the student may have never attended the public school system. “The greater impact is the implication that public schools can’t meet the needs of people in the community. It implies that public education isn’t good enough and that bothers me.”

The 2015-17 state budget included an expansion of the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, commonly known as school vouchers. The budget lifted the cap on how many students could enroll in the program. Since the cap lifted, participation has more than doubled from 1,008 students to 2,514 students statewide. The number of schools participating in the program increased from 31 to 82.

The District of Columbia and 13 states use some form of the private school voucher system. Across the country, the program aims to provide parents with a choice on how their children are educated. Proponents of the program believe that the state aid should follow the student, whether they are enrolled in the private or public education system.

To offset the expected loss to public schools, the state raised the revenue limit, or the amount of money that a school could receive through state and local funding, for the districts that did lose aid to the voucher program.

A study from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty stated that, while overall state aid for a district will decrease, the amount of money per student will increase. Districts will still be able to include the voucher student in their headcount when assessing property tax levies and the revenue limit. So a school’s total budget may be slightly decreased, but there are also fewer students in the public district, making the funds per student increase.

But this assumes that a district raises the tax levy to meet the higher revenue limit, which Southern Door voted against.

Although unaware of the voucher student in Sturgeon Bay, the district’s Business Manager Thomas Olsen stated that the district did take advantage of the increased revenue limit by taxing to its full authority.

This increase in taxes falls on the property taxpayers.

Proponents of the school voucher program believe that schools should not have to raise the tax levy because they don’t have to pay for the voucher student anymore. There is one less textbook, gym uniform and school lunch to buy.

But fixed costs such as teacher salaries, the electricity bill and building renovations remain the same.

Looking Ahead

Each school district can only receive vouchers for one percent of its student body. This leaves nine and 10 more spots for Southern Door and Sturgeon Bay Schools, respectively. If these district families use the program to the full one percent limit, the districts could see $70,000 of their funding go toward private schools.

While Gibraltar and Sevastopol schools do not currently have any students in the voucher system, their districts can lose up to six students each under the one percent rule.

“We don’t have any students in the voucher program so we are not sending any money out of our tax dollars to private schools,” said Linda Underwood, Superintendent of Sevastopol Schools. But Sevastopol is still seeing the effects.

“We haven’t had additional state aid in ages,” said Underwood. “And they haven’t raised revenue limits. We are still working from the same flat line budget.”

Underwood believes that, although the state aid is not coming straight from her district’s coffers, “in one way or another it is going to affect every school district in the state.”

Voucher programs began in Milwaukee in 1989 as a way to help socio-economically disadvantaged families leave poor school systems. The program was limited to secular schools and to families with an income of less than 175 percent of the federal poverty level.

During the last 20 years, the program expanded to Racine and increased the number of students allowed to enroll. The state raised the income cap and allowed schools with religious affiliation to enroll in the program.

The school voucher program will continue to expand in the next decade. Under the state budget, the one percent rule will escalate until 2028 when all caps are removed.

Although Kitchens thinks the impacts to Door and Kewaunee counties are minimal, he can see that changing as the program continues to expand.

“I have not favored unlimited expansion of voucher schools. It may have an affect as the cap gets lifted,” said Kitchens. “But I don’t see it ever being huge in our area.”

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