Wisconsin Covenant Lacks Needed Structure, Funding

Published December 1, 2007

A new Wisconsin program designed to raise college awareness and opportunity has prompted a partisan clash over funding and priorities.

The first year’s student signers of the Wisconsin Covenant started ninth grade this fall with Gov. Jim Doyle’s (D) promise the state will help provide financial and guidance resources to enable them to enroll in the in-state college or university of their choice in 2011.

Nearly 10,000 of the state’s 75,000 incoming high school freshmen signed the Covenant by the September deadline this year.

“The program tells [students] there will be a spot for them and the financial aid will be available based on their family’s financial need,” said Doyle spokeswoman Carla Vigue.

Lofty Promises

But leading Republicans say the program will fail to achieve its lofty promises.

“This has raised the expectations of parents. [Doyle] has sold kids a bag of goods,” said Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). “We’re going to be asked to deliver on something that we can’t deliver on.”

Fitzgerald said no price tag has been offered, nor has a bill been introduced to fund the program.

“It’s just ridiculous that the governor thinks he could deliver on a program of this size without the legislature’s support,” Fitzgerald said. “No consideration has been given to the legislature. It’s something he’s out there doing on his own.”

Funding Disagreement

At press time Doyle had proposed a $44 million budget increase to fund college financial aid, while Republican lawmakers argued for keeping the previous year’s spending levels.

Vigue said the government needs to spend more on higher education to improve the technology base of the state’s economy.

“The priorities of the Republicans in funding are off-base for the vision of what Wisconsin’s future should be,” Vigue said. “[Doyle] is committed to building a core of financial aid.”

Different Definitions

In September 2006, Doyle joined state post-secondary education leaders in establishing the Covenant. In order to qualify for the promised aid, students who sign on by the beginning of their freshman year in high school are expected to maintain a B grade average, graduate, meet college entrance requirements, and “demonstrate good citizenship.”

Fitzgerald says the lack of a written definition of “good citizenship” will lead to frustration and confusion.

“How do you define a good kid?” Fitzgerald asked. “If he’s had one detention, is he off the Covenant? If he’s found to have been in violation of the athletic code, is he off the Covenant?

“When it’s found their kid isn’t deemed ‘good,’ you’re going to have a lot of angry parents.”

Vigue acknowledged the lack of a clear definition, saying a student’s principal or guidance counselor will make the determination. She said requirements may include community service time but should not be interpreted too stringently.

“We’re trying to make college accessible to people,” said Vigue. “If you get a jaywalking ticket, we’re not going to keep you out of college.”

Motivating Kids

On May 10 the governor’s office organized Covenant Day to bring more than 1,000 eighth-graders and their teachers to one of three different Wisconsin college or university campuses to offer a glimpse into higher education.

“Some families have not even had discussions of going to college,” Vigue said. “The Covenant is just raising awareness of what it takes to get there. It’s an effort to get kids motivated and thinking about that possibility.”

Vigue said the governor’s program is modeled after the Carolina Covenant, a conditional college-financing promise run by the University of North Carolina.

Fitzgerald believes Doyle’s version lacks substance, suggesting his speechwriters created the Wisconsin Covenant before any careful analysis of the details could be made.

“Now there’s a scramble to throw a program around the rhetoric,” Fitzgerald said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

The Wisconsin Covenant: http://wisconsincovenant.wi.gov