Voucher expansion a flashpoint in state budget – Local Democrats vow they'll fight proposal; proponents say the program puts power in the hands of parents
Written by Keith Uhlig, Daily Herald Media
 
Wisconsin lawmakers expect to approve as early as today a state budget that includes expansion of a private school voucher program, while local Democratic legislators say they intend to fight the proposal.
 
State Democratic representatives Mandy Wright of Wausau and Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point held a news conference Monday morning at the Wausau School District’s Longfellow Administration Building to speak about their opposition to a Republican plan to expand the voucher program beyond Milwaukee and Racine. The program allows parents to use public dollars to enroll their children in private schools.
 
Supporters of the voucher program say it raises the level of competition among private and public schools, and allows poorer families access to higher-quality educational programs. Statewide enrollment in voucher schools outside Milwaukee and Racine would be capped at 500 next year and 1,000 after that. Only 1 percent of a school district’s enrollment could participate, but opponents expect those limits eventually to be raised.
 
Wright said she believes the measure is the first step toward an unlimited voucher system, which, according to the state’s Department of Public Instruction, could cost the state more than $1 billion.
 
“I just want people to know we are at the precipice of the dismantling of the public school system,” Wright said. Before taking her seat in the Assembly, Wright was a middle school teacher for the Wausau School District.
 
Support and opposition for the voucher program so far has fallen along party lines, which would mean passage in the Republican-dominated legislature. Shankland, though, said they hope to put pressure on moderate Republicans to vote against the bills.
 
“If we are going to take public money and give it to private schools, we must have accountability measures,” Wright said. “First of all, we need teacher certification. Teacher certification is so important and one of the top indicators of student performance.”
 
She also called for private schools to be included in the DPI’s School Report Card accountability process, so parents can compare them with public schools. Finally, she called for those private schools to work under open meetings and records laws as public schools are required.
 
Kyle Olson, founder of the Education Action Group, a national research, writing and analysis group that supports using free-market principals for education, said the warnings of Wright, Shankland and others who oppose voucher expansion are unfounded. Olson points to Indiana as an example of how voucher programs can increase funding for public schools because vouchers in the long run save money.
 
“I don’t know how it could cost more,” he said. “A voucher is less than the state is spending per student.”
 
As for accountability, he sees the programs as giving parents the “absolute accountability,” Olson said. “If the parent is not happy with the school, they leave.”