Vouchers expanded (detailed description), Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, 6/16/11

posted Dec 31, 2011, 6:28 PM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Jan 3, 2012, 7:56 AM ]


Vouchers expanded

Earlier this month, Republicans who control the Legislature had planned to make vouchers available in Racine and Green Bay, but in the face of opposition from some within their party they said Wednesday they were abandoning that plan and would expand them only to Racine.

Their amendment to do that in the Assembly early Thursday would create a formula determining the districts where vouchers would be offered for private schools, including religious schools. Under the formula, Racine would qualify right away. But other districts in midsize cities could come into the program in coming years as their demographics change.

The budget provision would make vouchers available to second-class cities that had 50% or more of their students eligible for free or reduced lunch and met certain state aid requirements. Wisconsin has 16 second-class cities, which generally are those that have populations of between 39,000 and 149,999.

Statewide, a total of 872,286 students enrolled in public schools for the 2010-'11 school year, while 124,514 enrolled in private schools, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. Statewide, private school enrollment has declined 14% in the past decade, while private school enrollment in Milwaukee has grown by 14% during that time, DPI says.

The total cost of the Milwaukee school choice program for this year is $130.8 million, with enrollment at just over 20,000 students.

Only Racine currently meets all four criteria to be eligible to gain a voucher program under the budget passed by the Legislature, according to a DPI analysis.

Green Bay meets three of the four criteria. Another 39 school districts meet half of the criteria, and 204 meet at least one criterion. The state has 424 school districts.

It's important to note how many criteria each school district meets because the governor could veto one or more criteria from the bill, including the limit to just second-class cities, said DPI spokesman John Johnson and critics of the plan.

Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) said Republicans opposed the way the budget provision was drafted. He said senators decided to pass the budget as written but would then soon pass a separate bill that would ensure school vouchers are not expanded beyond Racine.

"Nobody agrees with the language that was inserted in there," Ellis said.

Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, said he would sponsor legislation with Ellis to limit the vouchers expansion to Racine, saying that was the agreement Republican lawmakers made this week.

"A deal is a deal," Vos said.

Ellis and Werwie said the governor would sign the legislation that kept the expansion to Racine. The governor also will not use his veto pen to expand the voucher program statewide in the budget, they said.

Walker had proposed eliminating the income limits for those who can receive school vouchers. Republicans in the Legislature decided to raise it from 175% to 300% of the federal poverty level. Married couples would have a higher limit - $7,000 above 300% of the poverty level.

The current limit is $39,113 for a family of four. That would rise to $67,050 for a family of four headed by a single parent, and $74,050 for a family of four headed by a married couple.

Werwie said Walker would abide by that compromise and not change it with his veto pen.

The current program in Milwaukee is capped at 22,500 students. That limit would be eliminated under the plan, and the students would now be able to attend private schools beyond the city of Milwaukee's borders.

This fall, 250 children would be allowed in the Racine County program, 500 would be allowed in 2012, and an unlimited number would be allowed in 2013.

It would apply to students from the Racine Unified School District, which covers all communities in Racine County east of I-94.
Opponents weigh in

Skeptics such as Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards , noted that Walker could easily use his veto powers to rewrite the school choice provision in the budget and make vouchers available soon in all school districts.

"This is the kind of thing that deserves public scrutiny and public hearings," Rossmiller said. "It shouldn't be put in the budget in the middle of the night disguised as something that looks like it's designed to remove Green Bay."

Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said vouchers would destroy public schools.

"It really isn't choice," he said. "It is an attack on public education and our democratic system by allowing separate and unequal schools to operate that are not held accountable in any fashion. A choice school does not have to treat its students fairly."

But Jim Bender, a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin, issued a statement saying expanding the voucher program would give parents more choice.

"Private schools in the choice program deliver higher graduation rates and more students going to college at a greatly reduced cost to taxpayers," his statement said. "Opponents, especially those comfortable (with) the status quo, use juvenile hyperbole to deflect the conversation away from empowering parents and providing quality options for all students."

The budget bill would make several other significant changes.

The budget would require local governments - including the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County - to make certain employer contributions to their pension systems. Those contributions would have to match the new pension contributions being required of public workers, which in the case of state workers are equal to 5.8% of their salaries.

No estimate was immediately available of the effect of this provision on local government budgets. Jodie Tabak, a spokeswoman for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, said the city attorney is reviewing the provision to see whether it would require higher pension contributions from the city and taxpayers .

In addition, the final version of the budget drops provisions added by the Joint Finance Committee that would have made it harder for owners of land sitting in the way of a highway or power line project to challenge a government takeover of their property.

Lawmakers also decided to eliminate $2 million in state borrowing for a project at Milwaukee's National Soldiers Home. The proposal had been added to the budget by Joint Finance at the request of Darling.

Other budget changes include loosening restrictions on payday loans, allowing bail bondsmen to set up shop in Wisconsin, and allowing more fired Milwaukee cops to receive pay while they appeal their dismissals.

Karen Herzog, Don Walker, Bill Glauber and Emma Roller, all of the Journal Sentinel staff, contributed to this report.