Few vouch for school vouchersThe expansion of Wisconsin’s school voucher program is headed to the Senate and Assembly for approval after an early morning vote Wednesday by the Joint Finance Committee.
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
The expansion of Wisconsin’s school voucher program is headed to the Senate and Assembly for approval after an early morning vote Wednesday by the Joint Finance Committee.
The committee worked through the night to move forward a plan that would expand the Parental Choice Program statewide. The measure passed on a 12-4 party-line vote.
“We’re going against duly elected school boards and administrators from around the state,” said Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie. “They’ve spoken out against the expansion of this voucher system.”
In Superior, opinion has been largely against the proposed expansion.
Janna Stevens, superintendent of the Superior school district, said in May that she had received no positive feedback on the matter.
“I have not had any parent or community members communicate to me that vouchers will help,” Stevens said. “At the public forums I have spoken at and arranged in Superior, 100 percent are against expansion.”
Stevens added, however, that the audience was split 50-50 when she spoke at the Joint Finance Committee hearing in Baldwin.
Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, also had received mostly negative feedback from constituents, as of May 13. Of the contacts his office received, 69 percent opposed the voucher expansion and 31 percent supported it.
During listening sessions in Rice Lake, Barron, Ashland, Medford and Park Falls, 23 people spoke against expanding the voucher program and none spoke in favor of it.
Superior saw a similar trend at its April 25 listening session. All of the 22 people who attended showed up in opposition to the voucher expansion.
At Wednesday’s meeting of the Joint Finance Committee, the four Democrats on the committee argued that the expansion plan lacked sufficient accountability measures for private schools receiving vouchers.
Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, brought forth a motion to require Choice schools to meet the same requirements as public schools, including mandatory criminal background checks for teachers, licensing of teachers through the Department of Public Instruction, and compliance with open records laws. The motion was defeated.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine. “If you want to have a publically-funded school voucher system, then you should have to live up to the same accountability measures that public schools do.”
Republicans said the expansion of the voucher program gives parents more choices in the education of their children.
The new voucher proposal allows for the expansion of the voucher program to all school districts statewide and sets student enrollment caps at 500 for the first year of the biennium and 1,000 for every year after.
No more than one percent of a school district’s student population would be allowed to participate in the voucher program.
Gov. Scott Walker’s original proposal expanded the voucher program to nine school districts, based upon district size and school performance. Districts became eligible for vouchers only if two or more schools received “failing” marks on their school report cards.
Report cards are issued annually, and Walker said his “goal would be that there will be fewer and fewer, if any, school districts eligible for the Choice program, not because of a problem I have with the Choice program, obviously I don’t, but because my goal is to improve schools.”
The measure approved by the Joint Finance Committee on Wednesday eliminates the use of school report cards to determine eligibility.
Instead, vouchers will be allocated based on community interest. According to the Joint Finance Committee’s proposal, the 25 schools with the most voucher applicants would receive 10 seats each, and the remaining seats to be assigned by lottery until the enrollment cap is reached.
The committee’s plan also places tighter restrictions on income eligibility. Only families with an income at or below 185 percent of federal poverty level will be eligible for the program. That translates to an income of $43,567 for a family of four.
Walker’s proposal set the eligibility level at 300 percent of the federal poverty rate — just under $78,000 for a family of four.
The new parameters do not apply to the voucher programs already in place in Milwaukee and Racine.
Rep. Mason said the voucher program has not fulfilled its intended purpose in his home district.
“More than half the kids that are enrolled in the voucher program in Racine aren’t even from Racine Unified and aren’t even from those poor schools who have high poverty,” he said.
Mason said vouchers end up being a “nice middle-class subsidy” for parents who want to send their children to private schools.
The committee’s plan also received a sharp rebuke from State Superintendent Tony Evers.
In a press release issued May 30, Evers criticized the expansion of the voucher program at a time when public education has already endured record funding cuts.
He also expressed skepticism that the enrollment caps put on the voucher program would remain in place.
“Let’s be clear, no cap on voucher enrollment or income limits has ever stayed in place over the past 20 years,” Evers said. “History shows, and I predict, these caps are temporary. And, the result will be more and more funding pulled out of public school classrooms and put into private and religious schools.
“This is the future being set for a state whose public schools year after year educate students who are among the tops nationally in high school graduation and on the ACT college entrance exam.”
The measure must be approved by both the Assembly and the Senate before it goes to Gov. Walker.
The Joint Finance Committee also voted to create a new private school tax deduction to begin in 2014. The measure would allow parents to deduct tuition expenses of up to $4,000 for elementary school students and $10,000 for high school students each year.