Vouchers fund record pay raises at Pacelli
By Sari Lesk, USA Today Network-Wisconsin

STEVENS POINT - Teachers at Pacelli Catholic Schools received the biggest pay increase in the system's history last year thanks in part to funding from the state's voucher program.

The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program uses taxpayer money to pay tuition for a limited number of low-income students at private schools. The students can attend a school of their parents' choice, such as Pacelli Catholic Schools in Stevens Point, on a tuition voucher. Since the local parochial school system started accepting vouchers, Pacelli leaders said they have seen a boost in their budget that has allowed for bigger raises, additional programming and some facility repairs.

"Last year we were able to give teachers a large increase and this year we hope to give them an even larger increase," said Gregg Hansel, Pacelli's director of education. "We don't pay our teachers well. It's a matter of justice that we do a better job with that. The teachers and the people who work in the Catholic schools see it as a ministry, but at the same time, we have to pay them better."

Full-time Wisconsin public school teachers were paid an average salary of $53,583 in the 2013-14 school year, based on a DPI analysis. Hansel said the average salary for teachers in the Pacelli system is $31,000.

Teachers in the past received an increase of about $100 to $200 each year, Hansel said. Last year teachers received a salary increase of $1,000.

The extra money results from the school system accepting the taxpayer-funded vouchers, which are worth more than privately paid tuition. A high school voucher directs $7,969 to the private school, according to the Department of Public Instruction. Pacelli charges tuition at a decreasing rate based on how many students a family enrolls; high school tuition at Pacelli cost as much as $4,545 this year. Tuition vouchers for students in kindergarten through eighth grade are worth $7,323 this year, while Pacelli charged up to $2,616 in tuition this year for middle school students and $2,385 for elementary school students.

The statewide voucher system is a highly partisan issue that has drawn praise from the right and criticism from the left. Republican lawmakers passed a 2013 law that expanded the school choice program from a system available only in Milwaukee and Racine to a statewide program.

The law originally allowed 500 students whose families' income didn't exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty level; the cap expanded to 1,000 students the next school year. A 2015 law eliminated that cap, instead limiting participation to 1 percent of a district's membership in the prior year.

Next school year, the limit increases by one percentage point each year until the 2025-26 school year, after which no limit will exist. Democrats opposed the expansion of the voucher system in 2013 and in years since, arguing the taxpayer money diverted to private schools is hurting public education.

“Even if no new cut is included in this (next two-year state) budget, public schools will still lose funding meant for them thanks to the millions of dollars that are being shifted directly from public schools to private voucher schools — up to $800 million through 2025," Rep. Katrina Shankland, a Stevens Point Democrat, said in a statement about Gov. Scott Walker's most recent budget proposal for education.

Walker, a proponent of private school choice, voiced his support for the system in a 2015 speech to the American Federation for Children, a pro-school-choice advocacy group."Our goal should be to provide as many quality educational choices for parents as possible, because I trust parents," he said. "If you give them the best choices possible, they're going to make the choice that is best for their son or daughter."

President Donald J. Trump's newly appointed education secretary, Betsy DeVos, previously chaired the pro-voucher organization.

But the politics about vouchers do not enter Michele Tippel's first-grade classroom at St. Stanislaus School, where she read "There's a Wocket in my Pocket" by Dr. Seuss to her students Tuesday morning after they spent time reading independently.

"The great majority of us choose to stay in the Catholic schools not because of what we get paid, but because we are dedicated to the students we work with and their families," Tippel said. "We do this because we love teaching and because we love looking out for these kids and helping them grow and learn."

Pacelli has 78 full-time equivalent voucher students in the system this year, amounting to 13 percent of its student population, DPI data show.

Stevens Point School District taxpayers paid $339,225 for vouchers this year, according to DPI data.

Pacelli Director of Advancement Hannah Henderson said the tuition charged to private payers is well below the actual cost of educating students. The school system also receives funding from the Catholic parishes and fundraising.

Decorations in first grade teacher Michele Tippel'sBuy Photo

Decorations in first grade teacher Michele Tippel's classroom at St. Stanislaus School in Stevens Point. (Photo: Sari Lesk/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

"With the revenue we get for the voucher, that's more in line with what it actually costs us to educate each student," she said. "We operate as a nonprofit, so we try to keep tuition as low and affordable as we possibly can. The voucher does help us cover the basic costs of providing education to our students."

The additional money has helped support educational programming, Henderson said, including classroom materials. The district also started teaching students to code as young as kindergarten. Hansel, the Pacelli education director, said the additional money also has eased pressure on the Catholic parishes to fund the schools, because the diocese mandates the parishes pay for about 30 percent of the system's budget.

That money isn't enough to serve all of Pacelli's needs, Hansel said. The system is nearing the end of a capital campaign called "Pride in Our Past...Faith in Our Future" that has raised at least $2.7 million and aims to bring in $3.2 million. The money will help to upgrade buildings and expand programs at the schools and support long-term increases in teacher salaries, according to a Pacelli press release.

Hansel said he doesn't support pitting public schools against private schools when it comes to funding.

"A lot of people make this us versus them," he said. "We're all in this together. We're all in the business of educating children. We need really good public schools. We need really good private schools."