Vouchers could shift at least $600-$800 million from districts through 2025
By Erin Richards and Andrew Hahn of the Journal Sentinel May 28, 2015
Sending thousands more students to private, religious schools under an expansion of Wisconsin’s statewide voucher program could shift $600 million to $800 million out of public schools over the next decade, according to an analysis from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) and Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains) unveiled the memo Thursday to underscore their concerns about how the expansion could deplete funds available for public schools.
“It is so clear that Republicans in the state Legislature are selling out Wisconsin kids, families and neighborhoods to support Gov. Walker’s presidential ambitions and reward the out-of-state special interests that give millions to Republican campaigns,” Pope said.
But a voucher-school advocate countered that it’s impossible to forecast the cost of the school choice program expansion over the next decade, because schools cannot predict how many students will participate, and how many seats private schools could offer them.
“I’m a little bit surprised the fiscal bureau put this memo out,” said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin. “Normally, they don’t say, ‘We’re going to take a purely speculative run and just guess at the numbers.'”
The back-and-forth comes after the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee last week approved an expansion of the statewide voucher program, and a mechanism for funding it, as an amendment in the state budget. Gov. Scott Walker had proposed expanding the 2-year-old statewide voucher program in his initial budget request.
The budget still has to pass both houses of the Legislature and be signed into law by Walker.
The fiscal bureau memo predicts that approximately 2,000 incoming pupils would participate in the statewide voucher program in 2015-’16, and about 3,000 would participate in 2016-’17.
Payments for those pupils over the next two years would be paid for with about $37 million from the state’s general purpose fund, with payments fully offset by aid reductions to the pupils’ districts of residence, according to the memo.
The expansion plan calls for allowing more students to obtain vouchers beyond the next biennial budget — with the cap increasing each year until it’s removed entirely after about a decade.
That’s why Democrats asked the fiscal bureau for a projection of what the expansion would cost through 2025.
The statewide voucher program currently caps enrollment at 1,000 students.
Expanding the program has been hotly debated.
Democrats, teachers unions and others say expanding vouchers threatens the quality of public schools by depleting the finite pool of funds available for them.
They also point out that private schools are not required to be transparent with records and data in the same way as public schools, nor meet the same federal requirements to serve children with disabilities.
Many Republicans and voucher-school advocacy groups believe public money should be allowed to follow children to the school of their parents’ choice, even if it’s a private institution.
They say that is especially important for low-income students who may not have the means to attend a high-performing, private and religious school.
But since the inception of the statewide voucher program two years ago, the majority of children who applied for vouchers were already attending private schools without public assistance. New restrictions in the expansion plan would lower the number of children switching to use a voucher to continue attending the same private school.
Bender, from School Choice Wisconsin, said the total cost outlined in the memo was misleading because the funding for a public school student would follow that individual if they open-enrolled in a voucher school.
“These students are part of the funding base already,” Bender said. “There’s no new cost to the taxpayers. … There’s a small percentage of students that will be entering the system that weren’t there before, but that’s nothing that comes even close to $800 million.”
Specifics of plan
According to the voucher expansion plan approved by the finance committee, pupils who begin participating in the Racine or statewide voucher programs in the 2015-’16 school year would be counted by their home school district for the purposes of general aid and revenue limits. A district would then see a reduction in its state aid payment for any participating pupils, in the amount of $7,210 for a K-8 student and $7,856 for a high school student.
Districts could not raise taxes to compensate for the aid reduction.
Enrollment in the statewide program is capped at 1% of a district’s total enrollment in the first two years of the budget, then would rise by 1 percentage point each year until enrollment reaches 10% of the district’s prior year enrollment. After that, there will be no enrollment cap on the number of kids using publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools.
To qualify for a voucher, students entering the statewide program have to come from families earning no more than 185% of the federal poverty limit, or $44,828 for a family of four.