Measures To Revamp Wis. Schooling Advance
Several measures that would radically alter Wisconsin's approach to public education headed toward legislative approval last week, as opponents lined up to challenge them in the courts if they pass.
An influential committee of the legislature has endorsed Gov. Tommy G. Thompson's proposals to overhaul the state education department, provide state vouchers that could be used at religious schools, allow districts to create charter schools, and substantially reduce the state's reliance on property taxes for school funding.
Voting mostly along partisan lines, the legislature's Republican-dominated joint finance committee approved the three measures and attached them to a budget bill that it endorsed last week.
Rep. Ben Brancel, the committee's co-chairman, said he supported the education reforms because they would give parents much-needed control over the administration of the state's public schools.
"We will have a department of education that is more responsive to school districts' wishes," Mr. Brancel said in an interview last week. "We will allow school districts to have more flexibility in how they educate local children, and we will allow parents to have greater input."
The committee's recommendations generally carry substantial weight in the House and Senate, which must pass a budget bill by the end of the month. The Governor's fellow Republicans narrowly control both houses.
"I think everything we have been talking about will end up, ultimately, on the Governor's desk," Mr. Brancel predicted.
Most or all of the new legislation also would likely face court challenges, said Greg Doyle, a spokesman for the state education department. Several groups that oppose the measures said last week they were pinning their hopes on such legal battles.
Redefining Public Education
As now pending in the legislature, the budget bill includes:
- A plan to scrap the education department and create a new, cabinet-level education agency headed by an appointee of the governor.
The Wisconsin affiliate of the National Education Association has vowed to challenge the measure, claiming such a governance change would require an amendment to the state constitution.
In a move seen as a setback for Mr. Thompson, the joint finance committee amended the measure to provide for the creation of an appointed, 11-member state education commission to serve as a check on the Governor's powers.
- Changes in the state school-funding formula designed to increase the state's share of public school funding from about one-half to about two-thirds.
While acknowledging the need for property-tax relief, some legislators have criticized the proposal as shortsighted and reckless. They say it does not call for any new taxes to offset the changes, and that it would instead pay for the shift through cuts in state spending and hoped-for increases in revenue driven by a healthy economy.
A consortium of property-poor school districts that claimed in a lawsuit that the existing formula is inequitable would likely challenge this provision. Its leaders say the proposed formula would only worsen the inequities.
- New state funding and revisions in state law to expand the Milwaukee voucher program to allow low-income parents to use vouchers for religious schools--not just nonsectarian private schools as is now the case.
Some Milwaukee community activists have strongly supported the voucher expansion, but the measure has drawn opposition from civil-liberties groups and other organizations.
"This truly is an invitation to charlatans and pseudo-religions to cash in on government money," said Mordecai Lee, the vice chairman of the Wisconsin Coalition for Public Education, an organization that espouses strict separation of church and state.
Governor Thompson and other backers of the measure have argued that it is constitutional because it would give the vouchers to parents, rather than directly to the religious schools involved. They also noted that the measure would enable parents who used the vouchers to have their children excused from religious classes at the church schools.
Critics, however, have noted that the state money eventually would go to church schools, and that the state plans to have parents pick up their voucher checks at the schools they select.
Mr. Lee last week described the provision enabling the students to excuse themselves from religious classes as laughable. "It is like excusing them from anything that has to do with tennis at a tennis camp."