State News

Voucher programs expand, creating debates about public school funding

Wisconsin’s voucher programs allow low-income and minority children to attend private and religious schools, but Democratic representative fear expanding funding to the program will hurt taxpayers and public school districts. 

Wisconsin’s voucher programs allow low-income and minority children to attend private and religious schools, but Democratic representative fear expanding funding to the program will hurt taxpayers and public school districts. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Democrats expressed concerns regarding Republican efforts to expand K-12 school voucher programs rather than investing money toward Gov. Tony Evers’ budget plan to fully fund two-thirds of public schools. 

Enrollment in Wisconsin’s school choice programs increased by 3,411 students and 33 schools over the last school year, according to the Department of Public Instruction. The estimated total aid to all private school choice programs is $349.6 million for the 2019-’20 school year. 

The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program is a statewide division of the state’s Private School Choice Programs. According to Faith Based Education, Inc., the WPCP distributes vouchers for enrollment in private or religious schools. The program is limited to families with adjusted growth income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. 

The Wisconsin Public School Open Enrollment program withholds aid from a student’s resident district in order to transfer the funds to the district they choose to attend. Public schools may suffer nearly $150 million in aid reduction. The way most districts recoup from reduced aid is by raising local property taxes. 

Rep. Sandy Pope, D-Mt. Horeb, believes voucher programs negatively impact taxpayers and the resident schools that lose enrollment. 

“$350 million could have gone a long way in reimbursing public schools for their special education costs,” Pope said in a statement. “Instead these resources are finding their way to for-profit operators under the guise of parental choice.”

One Wisconsin Now Executive Director Analiese Eicher points to DPI data showing over 81 percent of students granted a voucher for the 2019-’20 school year already attended private schools during the 2018-’19 school year, keeping the added money within private schools. 

“A closer look at the data shows many of the students receiving vouchers aren’t changing from a public to a private school, they were already attending private school,” Eicher said. “What’s changing is that it’s taxpayers picking up the tab.”

However, a press release from School Choice Wisconsin maintains the data is misleading and “perpetuates a myth” about school choice having a high percentage of students already in private schools. Their website says students who transferred from public school two years ago can be listed as previously being a private school student, which may explain the data.

In 2018, School Choice Wisconsin President Jim Bender spoke out against former Superintendent Ever’s plan to freeze enrollment and end voucher programs altogether. 

“Parental demand for the programs keeps driving up enrollment,” Bender stated. “Knowing that popularity, it is surprising that the Superintendent of Public Instruction wants to stand in the school house door and deny access to the program, especially for low-income and minority students.” 

Enrollment in the WPCP grew by 37 percent during the 2018-’19 school year, and beginning in 2026-’27, the program will have no enrollment cap. 

However, Pope fears the implications of having no enrollment regulations. 

“Taxpayers are now feeling the runaway effects of the law that Scott Walker and legislative Republicans passed to expand and lift these enrollment caps,” Pope said. “It only gets worse from here. This unchecked expansion in Wisconsin is part of a growing national movement funded by the ultra-rich, pro-voucher lobby.” 

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