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Wis. Vouchers For Religious Schools Urged

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Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin took a bold step last week when he proposed that the state offer Milwaukee parents vouchers to send their children to religious schools.

Supporters of the plan--which would expand the pioneering Milwaukee choice program--hailed the Republican Governor as a school-reform leader and predicted a smooth sail through the G.O.P.-controlled legislature.

Although a similar voucher program was struck down by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court last month, proponents said they were optimistic that the Wisconsin plan would ultimately pass court muster and set a precedent for other states.

"Despite entrenched special interests," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, "solid prospects for victory are moving forward."

But opponents immediately attacked the plan, arguing that it would violate the constitutional separation between church and state and expand a program of questionable worth. Some claimed that it masked the Roman Catholic Governor's real motive: to funnel public dollars into the coffers of the Catholic Church.

Others speculated that Mr. Thompson hoped to curry favor with religious groups to position himself as a 1996 Presidential candidate.

Analysts have predicted that Republican gains nationwide in last November's elections will trigger a revival of voucher legislation in at least half a dozen states this year. (See Education Week, 12/14/94.)

Wisconsin now offers the only state-financed private-school-choice program in the country. Under the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which Governor Thompson signed into law four years ago, up to 1,500 low-income parents in that city are eligible for $3,200 state tuition grants to send their children to any private, nonreligious school in the state.

If passed, the new legislation would allow parents to use the voucher at religious schools as well.

"The expansion is designed to give low-income parents the same opportunities and choices in educating their children that other parents have," Mr. Thompson said in announcing the plan.

Grabbing the Spotlight

The expansion would begin prior to the 1996-97 school year, when the state would offer up to 3,500 students a $3,300 tuition voucher. The following year, an additional 2,000 students would be eligible, and enrollment caps would cease in the third year. To qualify, a family's income would have to be less than 1.75 times the federal poverty level.

The cost of the expanded program would be capped at $11.5 million, and the Governor contends that it can be paid for with money now spent on busing children in the city's public-school-choice program and for desegregation purposes.

"Instead of busing kids clear across town, we're going to let them walk down the street to the nearest school," said Kevin Keane, Mr. Thompson's press secretary.

But opponents question the wisdom of transferring money from the public to the private sector for a program that they say has had little proven effect so far.

"The bottom line ought to be whether kids learn more," said Richard Collins, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, "and if you gauge it by that, it doesn't measure up."

The Milwaukee choice program has received mixed reviews from its only evaluator thus far, and efforts by outside researchers to obtain the state's data have been stymied. (See Education Week, 12/14/94.)

However, Rep. Richard Grobschmidt, a Democrat and a former chairman of the House education committee, said that although he does not the support the proposition, it will likely pass. The program will be presented to lawmakers next month as part of the Governor's budget, rather than on its own--a tactic Mr. Grobschmidt said would ease its path through the legislature.

He and others expressed concern that only a small number of children would be able to take advantage of the vouchers. Currently, only 800 of the 1,500 parents eligible for the choice program participate. But supporters say the program's underutilization is another reason that it should be expanded to religious schools, which have the capacity to accept new students.

Opening Pandora's Box

In some circles, the argument over the likely educational effectiveness of an expanded program has taken a back seat to other concerns.

"What this is designed to do is aid the Catholic Church," said Anne Nicol Gaylor, the president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Madison-based advocacy group that works for the separation of church and state.

Ms. Gaylor said that although the vouchers are promoted as aiding poor people, "programs to help the poor are conspicuously absent from Thompson's agenda."

Mordecai Lee, the vice chairman of the Wisconsin Coalition for Public Education, said the proposal not only opens a "Pandora's box" of constitutional questions but also takes one step toward a statewide voucher program with no income limits.

Mr. Lee criticized the plan as a "financial bailout for some religious schools," and said it would be an abuse of the legislative process to include such a major policy proposal in the Governor's budget bill.

"I think this is going to be the biggest fight we've had in the Wisconsin legislature in a quarter of a century," Mr. Lee said.

Clint Bolick, the litigation director for the Washington-based Institute for Justice, acknowledged that if the bill passes, it will be challenged immediately in court. But Mr. Bolick, who successfully defended the original Milwaukee choice program in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, is optimistic.

"The program places the decisions in parents' hands and is a remedial program for low-income children," Mr. Bolick said. "It's a great program to defend against legal challenges."

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