Walker: Budget could expand school choice to other cities
Assembly approves expansion of program in Milwaukee
Madison — Gov. Scott Walker wants to bring voucher schools to urban areas beyond Milwaukee and predicts lawmakers will approve that expansion by the end of June.
“I think one of the things between now and the time we finish this (state) budget off at the end of June, we’re going to be able to add and go beyond the boundaries of the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County. We’re actually going to be able to add communities like Racine and Beloit and even Green Bay . . . because every one of those communities deserves a choice as well, and with this budget that’s exactly what they’re going to get,” Walker said in a Monday speech to school choice advocates in Washington, D.C.
The proposal comes as Walker is proposing cutting public-school funding by $841 million over two years, and injects a new campaign issue into attempts to recall nine state senators.
A day after Walker made his comments, his fellow Republicans in the Assembly approved eliminating the cap on the number of children who can participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The 20-year-old system allows low-income children to use taxpayer-funded vouchers worth $6,442 each to attend private schools in Milwaukee, including religious schools.
The Assembly signed off on the bill on a party-line 57-36 vote, sending it to the GOP-controlled Senate. The bill would also expand the program to schools in Milwaukee County suburbs, but the students would still have to come from the city of Milwaukee.
Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee, said Republicans are talking about creating choice programs in Racine, Beloit and Green Bay. She said she supports the idea and the programs could begin this fall or the fall of 2012.
“I can’t say it’s cooked, but it’s on the table,” she said.
Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), the other co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, said he hoped the committee would put the measure into the budget by the beginning of June and then forward it to the two houses for votes within weeks.
“I think the idea of giving more choice to parents should be an easy sell to our caucus,” he said.
Assembly Republicans have yet to meet as a group on the plan, leaders said.
“We’re not saying yes. We’re not saying no. We’ll discuss it in caucus,” Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) said.
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) said the plan could also advance as a standalone bill, rather than as part of the budget – a move that would provide more time for the measure.
Allowing voucher schools in other parts of the state would keep Wisconsin at the forefront of states seeking to expand taxpayer support for private schools.
Mike Ford, research director for School Choice Wisconsin, said the Milwaukee program already represents the largest urban school voucher program in the country.
Ohio has a statewide voucher program for schools that are deemed by state education officials to be consistently underperforming.
Last week, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed into law a statewide voucher program there. That program is initially capped at below the number of students already in the Milwaukee program, but the cap will be phased out in the third year.
In his budget, Walker did not include allowing children from areas outside Milwaukee to attend choice schools. But by embracing it in his speech before the American Federation for Children, he put the issue squarely before lawmakers who are trying to pass the budget before the new fiscal year starts July 1.
As the heads of the Joint Finance Committee and key choice supporters, Darling and Vos will be tasked with persuading their colleagues to bring choice to new cities. That could be tricky to do in a matter of weeks and amid likely recall elections.
Darling is among the six Republicans whom opponents are trying to recall. Similar attempts are being made against three Democrats. Elections could be held as soon as July 12.
Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), one of the recall targets, issued a brief statement saying he wanted more details on bringing school choice to his city.
“I am always interested in finding ways we can improve education for our children,” he said. “However, I have not seen any details, the price tag or how it will impact our local schools, which are already facing draconian cuts under Governor Walker’s proposed budget.”
Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), who announced Tuesday he would run against Hansen if a recall election is held, said he was open to bringing school choice to Green Bay but wanted more details.
“The concept, I think, is intriguing, to give parents that choice,” he said.
Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), a former police officer who served as a security liaison for the Racine School District, said he favored Walker’s proposal because it would give students in his district and others a choice. He said he also wanted to ensure public schools were successful.
“I think it has been a good thing for Milwaukee,” Wanggaard said of the voucher program. “I think it would be good for us. My concern is that we look at all the issues that surround not only the choice schools but the public schools also.”
Wanggaard said the topic had long been discussed but he hadn’t known about Walker’s announcement beforehand.
“My only concern is that my governor went to Washington, D.C., to talk about this instead of coming to my district to announce it here,” Wanggaard said.
Howard Fuller, a former MPS superintendent and a longtime advocate for voucher schools, said Tuesday he has long supported expanding vouchers to children who live in other Wisconsin cities. But Fuller, who attended Walker’s speech, added he had not been asked to fight for the expansion to other parts of the state.
Fuller has skewered another provision in Walker’s budget that would eliminate income limits in Milwaukee’s school choice program, allowing the children of middle-income and wealthy people to attend private schools at taxpayer expense.
“I do not support universal vouchers wherever they put it,” he said. “I still believe the focus of these programs should be on low-income and working-class people.”
The program is now available only to students with family incomes of less than 175% of the federal poverty level, or $39,113 for a family of four.
Income limit debated
Darling and Fitzgerald said lawmakers were considering raising the income limit but not eliminating it, as Walker wants. Darling said she supported raising it to 300% of the poverty level, or $67,050 for a family of four. That would help keep middle-class people in Milwaukee and boost the city’s economic vitality, she said.
The bill the Assembly approved Tuesday would erase the cap of 22,500 students in the Milwaukee choice program. About 20,200 are participating this year.
Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) said lifting the cap was “the first step to decimating public education.”
But Fitzgerald said choice schools were essential.
“MPS is broken – it’s broken,” he said. “We wouldn’t be in this situation if it was flourishing.”
If 1,000 more students attended choice schools, Milwaukee property taxes would be allowed to rise by $2.5 million, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett – who unsuccessfully ran for governor as a Democrat against Walker – said lawmakers should not eliminate the cap if they are not going to make changes to the funding formula to help Milwaukee.
Some school aid is calculated by dividing the number of children in a district by its total property value. School choice children are not counted in that figure, which results in a higher average property value for Milwaukee and thus less aid than Milwaukee Public Schools would otherwise get.
“If City of Milwaukee property-tax payers are paying for these (choice) kids, then the state should count the kids,” Barrett said.
Doing so would mean millions of dollars for MPS, while reducing aid to other districts.
The Assembly also approved a bill 60-31 Tuesday that would allow the state to send a single check to each choice school. Currently, the state sends voucher schools scores of checks in the name of each parent, which have to be signed over to the schools.
That bill also would allow parents with more than one child in the same voucher school to fill out one application for all of them, instead of an application for each student. It next goes to the Senate.
Three Democrats, all from Milwaukee, joined Republicans in approving the measure – Jason Fields, Leon Young and Josh Zepnick.
Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report from Milwaukee.