Voucher plan likely to spark fierce fight

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to expand the private school voucher program statewide, while not allowing public school spending to increase, drew a raft of angry responses Monday from those who fear his budget leaves public school students behind.

The debate over Walker’s public education funding proposal and desire to grow alternatives such as private school vouchers is likely to be one of the fiercest in the Statehouse this year, even dividing Republicans who control the Legislature.

Opponents to another part of Walker’s plan — allowing vouchers for special-needs students — went to the Capitol on Monday to urge the governor to reconsider.

Wisconsin state Superintendent Tony Evers, who has worked with Walker on some education initiatives over the past two years, said Monday he was “deeply disappointed and saddened” by the governor’s latest proposals.

While 40 percent of the state budget is dedicated to public education spending, only 20 percent of the new money Walker intends to spend would go for that, Evers said.

“Leaving public school kids behind is not a path to shared prosperity,” Evers said in a statement.

Walker’s budget to be released Wednesday will include about a 1 percent increase in funding for public schools, but the cap on how much can be raised from state money and from local property taxpayers remains in place. That means the additional state money will likely go toward keeping property taxes down, not additional spending on students or schools.

Walker’s proposal comes on the heels of an $800 million cut in aid in the last budget and a 5.5 percent reduction in spending authority. Walker said districts were able to make up the cuts through greater pension and health care contributions required of teachers and other workers.

Walker is also proposing spending $73 million more on private school vouchers, expanding the program beyond Milwaukee and Racine.

Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which represents teachers statewide, said Walker’s focus is on privatizing public education.

“The governor’s priorities don’t lie with what’s best for students, and instead focus on supporting special interests,” Bell said in a statement.

Under Walker’s voucher plan, districts with at least two failing school buildings receiving grades of D or F on the state report card, and that have at least 4,000 students, would qualify. Based on current data, nine new districts would qualify for vouchers starting next year. They are Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee.

In the 2013 school year, statewide enrollment in all voucher programs outside of Milwaukee and Racine will be capped at 500 students. The next year the enrollment cap will double to 1,000 and go away after that. There is no cap in Milwaukee, which this school year gave out 24,000 vouchers.

Walker is pushing the voucher expansion on the argument that it will provide more opportunities for children across the state to get the type of education they want.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a voucher supporter, agreed with Walker saying, “The governor has proposed excellent options to help students succeed at every level.”

But support among Republicans for the voucher expansion isn’t 100 percent. At least two Republican state senators, enough to block the plan, have expressed reservations over how Walker’s proposal is structured. Those senators — Mike Ellis of Neenah and Luther Olsen of Ripon — also want to require a local vote to approve vouchers, something Walker opposes and did not include in his plan.

Three former Republican speakers of the state Assembly are working as lobbyists for two groups that are pushing an expansion of the voucher program. Those groups, the American Federation for Children and School Choice Wisconsin, praised the Walker proposal. 

Walker wants to increase the amount of the vouchers from $6,442 to $7,050 for elementary school students and for the first time pay those going to high school even more — $7,856. Those higher payments would start in the 2014-2015 school year.

“Increasing the funding in a manner that more closely accounts for actual costs of educating the students is good for the taxpayer,” said School Choice Wisconsin president Jim Bender. 

The voucher program is available only to students whose families earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty rate, or $69,801 for a family of four. Walker doesn’t change that eligibility level. 

Walker’s budget also sets aside $21 million in grants for special needs students to receive a voucher to attend private schools. A proposal for those special needs vouchers passed the Assembly last session, despite broad opposition from the state Department of Public Instruction, disabilities rights groups, and the state school boards association. It did not pass the Senate.

Evers, the state superintendent, renewed his objection to the special needs vouchers on Monday saying special education students in private schools are not guaranteed services and surrender certain legal rights and recourses afforded under federal law. Parents of students with disabilities also came to the Capitol on Monday to urge Walker to change his mind.

“The vouchers may sound very appealing on the surface, but the promises are false and the vouchers would be risky for the students who took them,” said Joanne Juhnke of Madison, who has an 8-year-old disabled daughter.

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