By Steve Gunn
MADISON, Wis. – Despite criticism from officials and lawmakers in both parties, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is preparing to propose a major expansion of the state’s private school voucher program.
The program is currently open to students who meet income qualifying levels in Milwaukee and Racine. Walker’s plan, which will be officially unveiled in his Wednesday budget address to the legislature, would move the charter program to any K-12 school district with at least 4,000 students and at least two schools that have been given a failing grade by the state, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The non-voucher districts that currently meet that standard are Beloit, Fon du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee.
The governor would also increase funding for K-8 private school voucher students from $6,442 to $7,050 per pupil. Funding for 9-12 voucher students would increase from $6,442 to $7,856.
Overall state aid for traditional public schools would increase $129 million over two years while the increase for voucher schools would be $73 million over two years.
To pass, Walker will have to convince the legislature to override a law that says percentage increases in state funding for public schools be the same as increases for voucher schools, according to the newspaper.
While Walker is trying to make school choice more available to families throughout the state, and provide alternatives for kids stuck in failing schools, there was a predictable outcry about the plan from teachers unions and their allies in the Democratic Party.
One union ally, State Superintendent Tony Evers, noted that private voucher schools would receive $73 million in additional funding, while traditional schools, despite receiving more state money, would have no ability to increase current expenditures without a vote of citizens in each district.
Evers said he was “deeply disappointed” with the plan, according to the newspaper report.
Walker also faces opposition from his fellow Republicans, most notably state Senate President Mike Ellis, who wants each school district to determine its voucher status on its own with a public vote.
Ellis and his allies also oppose providing vouchers for any student within a qualifying district, rather than just students in failing schools.
“This is phase one of a wide-open school voucher program for the state,” Ellis said. “The governor didn’t respect the thoughts of about eight or 10 Republican senators who didn’t want it in the budget.”
Walker has rejected the idea of allowing public votes to keep students trapped in failing schools. He said he would consider limiting vouchers to students in failing schools.
The plan is part of the governor’s two-year state budget package. It will probably stand a better chance of passing as part of that package rather than as an individual bill, according to the news report.