Wisconsin Lawmakers Consider Two School Choice Proposals

Published May 17, 2013

In 1989, Wisconsin became the first state to implement school vouchers for poor families. The program began in the Milwaukee School District in 1990 and expanded to Racine School District in 2011.

This spring, Gov. Scott Walker (R) and state lawmakers introduced proposals to expand these opportunities to more families throughout the State.

 “While the budget is being deliberated in the legislature, Governor Walker hopes legislators will recognize the need to give parents choices and alternatives to underperforming schools,” said Walker’s press secretary, Tom Evenson.  Although Walker is fighting hard for his proposal, several Wisconsin legislators have stated they want major revisions.

Competing Visions
State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) and his colleague, Rep. Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah) have introduced legislation that would provide a state tax credit to parents of children who attend private schools. The credit would be worth up to $1,500 for each child in elementary school and $2,500 for each child in high school. Kaufert considers this a “viable alternative” to Walker’s school voucher expansion.

The two proposals are aimed at different populations, Grothman said: “Walker’s proposal gives preference to people on free and reduced lunch, my proposal is aimed at the middle class,” he said.

The governor’s expansion plan, embedded within his must-pass budget, would expand the state’s current voucher system from Milwaukee and Racine into additional qualifying districts. Eligible districts include those with at least 4,000 students and with two schools receiving a “D” or “F” on the state’s school report card. Families who earn less than 300 percent of the poverty level would receive a  voucher worth up to $7,000 for a private school that agrees to administer state tests, rather than the current limit of $6,442.

The legislature’s tax credit proposal would provide every family in the state the opportunity to choose what type of education is best for their children, while the governor’s plan would only apply to nine more districts of Wisconsin’s more than 400, said Brian Pleva, a government affairs associate for the American Federation for Children’s Wisconsin branch.

The voucher expansion “would expand the range of options for students, especially the ones that cannot afford to attend private schools on their own,” said Christian D’Andrea, an education policy analyst from Wisconsin’s free-market MacIver Institute for Public Policy. Students in Wisconsin are learning and growing at rates that traditional, public education methods cannot always keep up with because they are slow to change, he said.

“What vouchers—and independent charter schools—have as an advantage over these public schools is an enhanced ability to accommodate and grow with these students,” he said.

Establishment Opposition
Opponents of voucher and tax credit programs, such as Kettle Moraine Superintendent Patricia Dekolz, often argue that they will hurt public schools. She recently told Wisconsin’s Joint Committee on Finance that increasing money available to public schools by nearly $400 million over two years would be necessary to improve current public schools. 

Wisconsin taxpayers have some of the highest property tax rates in the nation, and pay between $10,000 to $15,000 each year per public-school student. Dekolz worries a voucher program means fewer students and less money for public schools.

Introducing vouchers to Racine prompted public school leaders to review and improve programs, as well as introduce new ones, said a Racine School District spokesman: “International Baccalaureate programs are being expanded, [science, technology, engineering, and math] instructional models are being added to additional schools, and expanded at others, and the district is considering charter school proposals.”

The MacIver Institute notes that Milwaukee’s voucher program has saved taxpayers more than $300 million since it began, because private schools educate children more cheaply than public schools. The two programs would give parents greater freedom, and would encourage schools and school districts to perform well or face the threat of losing students to failing schools, D’Andrea said.  Most importantly, he said, any extra school choices “gives children and families across the state the opportunity to find the environment that allows them to thrive if they are struggling to adapt in their traditional public schools.”

Grothman is optimistic about the possible outcomes of these bills, and believes the legislature might pass a “hybrid” of both.

“They do both these things in Indiana,” he commented, “I think since they are aimed at different populations, it would be nice if [the legislature] passed both.”

Image by United Way of Greater St. Louis.