Wisconsin Lawmakers Look to Expand Vouchers Statewide

Published June 11, 2013

After weeks of closed-door negotiations, Wisconsin lawmakers have come out with a compromise on a school voucher expansion that would send the program statewide but cap enrollment.

At 6 a.m. on June 5, the Joint Finance Committee amended a provision in the state budget to expand vouchers beyond the cities of Milwaukee and Racine, but limit enrollment outside those cities to 500 in the first year and 1,000 after that. Voucher critics dislike that the compromise allows any expansion at all, while proponents dislike the cap.

“[The] Joint Finance Committee made progress towards fairer funding of choice and charter students and they provided help to families struggling to pay private school tuition,” said Betsy DeVos, chairman of the American Federation for Children, in a statement. “However, it is disappointing that more children will not be able to attend the school of their parents’ choice in the new statewide program… especially those families with special-needs children who saw their opportunities vanish when the committee voted to eliminate Governor Walker’s proposed special-needs scholarship.”

The provision also increases funding for public schools by $150 per student in each of the next two years. The budget now heads to the Assembly for debate, likely in mid-June, then to the Senate, and finally Gov. Scott Walker (R).

The Sausage Factory
The deal would also limit new enrollees to students from families earning up to 185 percent of the poverty rate—that’s a $43,500 annual income for a family of four—instead of 300 percent, as Walker wanted. The committee approved an increase in voucher payments to $7,210 for students in kindergarten through eighth grade starting in 2014 and $7,856 for those in high school.

Wisconsin taxpayers pay $11,300 per student enrolled in public schools, on average. In Milwaukee, they pay $14,200.  

Walker’s original plan expanded vouchers to only nine of the worst-performing school districts in the state, but had no enrollment cap after the second year. The new plan also prohibits more than 1 percent of students in a given school district from receiving a voucher. State Superintendent Tony Evers worried program limits would not last long, because vouchers have steadily expanded everywhere they have been introduced, including Wisconsin.

Vouchers for special-needs students, which Walker proposed, were removed, as was creating a new statewide board to authorize new charter schools. Those proposals are expected to be introduced as separate bills. After a U.S. Department of Justice decision that Wisconsin voucher schools must be more tightly regulated to ensure equal treatment for special-needs students, despite no parent complaints, lawmakers suggested a special-needs scholarship to meet those needs and concerns.

“Parents are more satisfied when they participate in school choice programs,” said Patrick Wolf, a University of Arkansas professor who has studied Milwaukee’s voucher program, which is the nation’s first and oldest. This includes parents of children with special needs, he noted.

Research on Wisconsin Vouchers
Wolf’s research has shown Milwaukee voucher students were 4 percentage points more likely to enroll in a four-year college or university than similar public school students.

“Since less than 22 percent of Milwaukee Public School students enrolled in a four-year college, the Milwaukee Parent Choice Program advantage on this important metric represents almost 20 percent gain in the likelihood of college enrollment,” he said.

That was just one small way vouchers benefitted especially poor and minority children in Wisconsin, he found. His research also showed nearby public schools improved after their students could get a voucher.

“Although we have examined virtually every possible way that school choice could systemically affect people, schools, and neighborhoods in Milwaukee, we have found no evidence of any harmful effects of choice.” 

The measure would also shift all of the costs of Milwaukee voucher students onto the state. Currently, local taxes constitute part of the voucher.

The finance committee also passed a proposal to let individuals to reduce their taxable income by up to $4,000 for spending on elementary school tuition and up to $10,000 for high school tuition. That would mean a tax cut of up to $251 or $627, respectively, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. 


Image by Gage Skidmore.