Guest commentary: Full embrace of private schools

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The Republican-controlled state government is putting a controversial twist on sending financial help to private schools. Public school districts will be forced to help pay for the education of children from their district who go to independent voucher and charter schools. 

Sharp criticism from public school advocates followed approval of the concept by the Legislature’s budget committee. It was part of legislation to expand voucher and charter school education.

Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network said it amounts to a “laundering scheme that essentially siphons tax dollars directly into private schools through expansion of the voucher program that Wisconsin citizens so clearly oppose.”

OTHERS NOTED that out-of-state proponents of expanding private schools with taxpayer dollars have been major contributors to gubernatorial and legislative elections. 

It “must have felt like Christmas morning for Wisconsin advocates for taxpayer funding of private school vouchers,” said John Forster, director of government relations for the School Administrators Alliance.

“Clearly this is the best education budget that millions of dollars in largely out-of-state political contributions can buy,” he said. “We will not stand by while elected leaders dismantle public education in our state.”

STATE SEN. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, captured the Republican tone of response to the public school criticism: “We want to invest in our schools to set up our students for success.”

 Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), assailed the provisions of the Republican school-financing efforts.

“At the same time they’re at the front door of the school house boasting putting money inside, they’re sending money out the back door to subsidize private schools,” she said 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers said diverting money from public schools to private schools will impact public school education in Wisconsin. He noted the state has been a national leader in high school education, Advancement Placement courses and ACT scores.

THE BUDGET plan adopted by the committee “evades the basic foundation of Wisconsin’s public school system,” the DPI said. “If we want all students to achieve, we cannot continue to ask our public schools to do more with less,” Evers said.

Evers noted the committee plan provides no increase in school district revenue limits, even though money may be diverted toward private education. Others noted it might be more difficult to pass school referenda if voters understand that higher property taxes could be financing the assistance for charter and private schools. That could be an added benefit for Tea Party folks who oppose taxes.

The new budget approach strikes at the state constitutional obligation to educate all students in local public schools, Evers noted.

STATE SEN. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said provisions diverting taxpayer money to private schools will make it more difficult to run public school systems.

Gov. Scott Walker has championed the expansion of non-public education, contending it will help children in Wisconsin. The Joint Finance Committee action came on a 12-4 party-line vote. The talk of public school supporters politically opposing the Republican education program may be wishful thinking.

Earlier in May, Common Cause in Wisconsin cited statistics from the 2014 general election that showed only 10 percent of the legislative districts are competitive between the two parties. The districts were created by Republicans following the 2010 election and will be in place through the 2020 elections. Democrats may get more votes in legislative elections, but the gerrymandering assures GOP control.

Matt Pommer has been covering state government in Wisconsin for more than 35 years.

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