Wisconsin Assemblymen Consider Proposing ESA Program

Published November 11, 2016

Republicans in the Wisconsin State Assembly are considering introducing education savings account legislation, according to the 2017 Republican Assembly agenda, which outlines the party’s legislative goals.

“We will explore implementing Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to provide families with access to savings that can be used only for education-related expenses, including tuition, textbooks and tutoring,” the agenda’s authors wrote. “By giving parents greater autonomy to decide what kind of education their children should receive, they will have more opportunities to customize educational programs to best meet their individual needs, rather than expecting everyone to fit into the same traditional school model.”

Wisconsin currently has in place four voucher programs, with varying restrictions, and a tax credit/deduction program for families sending their children to private schools.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported in October, “[T]he state’s largest teachers union came out swinging” after the State Journal reported the Republicans’ plan to create ESAs in the state when the legislature convenes in the spring.

“Ron Martin, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said in a statement after the State Journal published a story about the lawmakers’ plans, that the programs amount to a ‘back-door scheme’ to take money away from public school funding,” the State Journal reported.

ESAs Offer ‘Enhanced Customization’

Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, says the state’s current school choice programs are too restrictive.

“The current options allow you to choose a brick-and-mortar building option or a fully virtual option,” Bender said. “While we have some distance learning and course options, the numbers are low. For the most part, these are all-or-nothing proposals. What ESAs bring to the table is an enhanced customization of the educational process. That process is new to Wisconsin.” 

Avoiding ‘Severe Limitations’

Bender says although ESAs can take many forms, they work best when they’re as inclusive as possible.

“There are multiple different options being discussed, from gifted and talented programs to special needs, to even rural-based efforts that focus on technology to connect students with [course] providers,” Bender said. “We are hopeful that there are not severe limitations on who is eligible. Unlike other school choice options, ESAs work best when there are many vendors to offer services. Even traditional district schools would need to make changes if they wanted to become course providers. Creating strong demand early will be key to having providers offer options.”

Uncertain Funding

Bender says the funding mechanism for ESAs is another concern lawmakers will have to tackle.

“We currently fund vouchers and independent charter schools with state dollars only,” Bender said. “Local property taxes and federal dollars are currently not a direct funding source. This creates funding mechanisms that allow the state dollars to follow the child. At times, this does limit the number of dollars available for reform. We are optimistic, however, that creative solutions can be found to expand these options.”

CJ Szafir, vice president of policy and deputy counsel at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, says the long-term success of school choice programs will require funding reforms.

“We are nowhere near dollars following the student no matter where the student attends school,” Szafir said. “The [current school choice] programs are a patchwork of political compromises. These are good for the kids in the short term, but in the long term, how are we going to change the funding system to have the dollars follow the kid?”

Opposition and Optimism

Administration of an ESA program could be difficult in Wisconsin, Szafir says.

“Other states use their department of education, but in Wisconsin, the superintendent of public instruction is incredibly hostile to school choice and education reform,” Szafir said. “We’ve had multiple lawsuits against him on behalf of choice schools, so the natural reaction would be that we don’t want to empower him even more over these types of programs.”

Bender says the presence of important pro-choice lawmakers and influential leaders in Wisconsin increases the state’s chances of enacting ESAs.

“Many of the details are yet to be worked out, but [Gov. Scott Walker] is known for making bold proposals,” Bender said. “We are hopeful that new options can gain traction early in the session and quickly be enacted. Wisconsin is lucky to have some champions of education reform in the legislature, especially at the leadership level. That combination sets us up very well for the next session to expand opportunities for parents. The addition of ESAs to the educational landscape will further empower parents in finding the best solutions for their children.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia. 


Adam Peshek, “The New Frontier in School Choice: Education Savings Accounts: The Great Unbundling of K–12 Education,” Foundation for Excellence in Education, May 11, 2016: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/education-savings-accounts-the-new-frontier-in-school-choice-education-savings-accounts-the-great-unbundling-of-k-12-education?source=policybot