Two Wisconsin state senators are trying to garner support for a plan to divert voucher money from low-income city children enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) to a school district in far northern Wisconsin.
After failing to receive voter support for a $2.25 million district-wide referendum, the Florence County School Board voted June 29 to dissolve the 600-student district on July 1, 2006. If that happens, Florence students will be absorbed by neighboring school districts.
“If this county won’t support quality education, I have no problem sending [students] somewhere that will,” Florence School Board President Dan Brereton said.
In response, state Sens. Roger Breske (D-Eland) and Russ Decker (D-Wausau), both longtime school choice opponents, proposed saving the district by diverting funds from the MPCP to the Florence County School District. At press time, the proposal was unlikely to be approved, as both houses of the Wisconsin legislature support the 15-year-old Milwaukee program. But the plan illustrates a pattern of ongoing attacks on school choice by some Wisconsin legislators, said School Choice Wisconsin President Susan Mitchell.
“This bill is yet another reminder of the serious threat that some politicians pose to the future of educational options for low income Milwaukee parents,” Mitchell said.
Opponents Level Charges of Waste
Decker and Breske’s bill, currently in circulation for co-sponsorship, would take money directly from the program that makes payments to parents participating in the MPCP. In the 2004-05 school year, the program gave vouchers worth up to $5,943 to about 14,000 low-income students in Milwaukee. By comparison, during the 2003-04 school year–the latest for which data are available–the Florence County School District spent $10,628 on each of its 600 students.
Opponents of the Florence referendum say poor fiscal decisions led to the district’s financial problems. The Florence County Taxpayer Alliance cites an early retirement package providing full, free health care to employees 20 years after they left the district, up to age 75. Last year alone, the retirees’ health care cost more than $400,000.
According to the state Department of Public Instruction, average teacher salaries in Florence are nearly $40,000, while the county’s average individual income is $34,000. Teacher fringe benefits average an additional $21,730 a year per teacher.
“[T]hey’re spending beyond the means of those who pay the bills,” said state Rep. Frank Lasee (R-Bellevue).
Senators Oppose Voucher Program
Both Breske and Decker have a history of attacking the MPCP. In 2001 and 2002, they voted for legislation to drastically cut the program’s funding. Those proposals ultimately failed in floor votes.
Decker in particular has long claimed the Milwaukee program reduces state aid available to school districts–a claim that has been contradicted every year since 2001 by nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau reports. Breske echoed Decker’s misinformation in his 2004 election campaign.
Breske’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Mike Ford ([email protected]) is a research associate at School Choice Wisconsin.
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