Wis. Lawmakers Pass Measures to Widen School Voucher Program

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Wisconsin lawmakers hope to expand significantly the state's school choice programs with the recent passage of five bills, following bitter debate.

The future of the bills is in doubt, however, as they must be approved by Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat who has vetoed nearly identical measures in the past and will likely do so again.

If signed into law, the bills would eliminate a cap on the number of students who can take part in the Milwaukee voucher program, expand eligibility to wealthier families, and increase the pool of private schools eligible to participate. The $76 million program provides public money to pay for private schooling. The state covers 55 percent of the cost; the Milwaukee school district pays the remainder. Other, more minor bills that the legislature passed last month could increase enrollment in Milwaukee charter schools.

Proponents argued that amendments were needed for both types of legislation, in part because demand for the voucher and charter programs are expected to exceed availability soon.

"We eliminated obstacles to choice," said Sen. Alberta Darling, a Republican who co-sponsored the voucher bill. "If the governor vetoes it, there will be a tremendous backlash."

Yet a veto appears to be exactly Mr. Doyle's plan.

"The governor has been pretty clear that this is not the time to expand or restrict choice," said Dan Leistikow, a spokesman.

Raising Family Incomes

Of the five bills approved by the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate this fall, the most far-reaching and controversial—Assembly Bill 259—could significantly broaden the state's pioneering Milwaukee voucher program.

Participation in the program is capped at 15 percent of the 100,000-student district's enrollment; the bill would erase that cap altogether.

The cap presents a problem, voucher advocates say, because of the growth in the program's popularity. If the cap is met, the state education department has vowed to ration seats on a per-school basis, which could mean some students who now attend private schools with vouchers would be denied access.

Milwaukee district officials estimate between 10,000 and 11,000 students participate in the voucher program, a number that has been growing by 1,000 or 2,000 children a year.

The bill would also raise the ceiling on family incomes. Today, enrollment is limited to students whose families earn $32,000 while the new legislation would allow the children of families who make slightly more— $39,000— to take part.

Some families who have been able to increase their incomes suddenly found that their children were no longer eligible, said Susan Mitchell, the president of the American Education Reform Foundation, a Milwaukee-based group that pushed for the legislation. It does not make sense to penalize those students for their parents' success, she maintained.

"We did not view this as an expansion [of choice programs], but as a problem- solving legislative package," Ms. Mitchell said.

Critics, however, argue that the voucher program is not accountable to taxpayers. Students who attend private schools with public money are exempt from state assessments and other regulations imposed on public schools, they point out.

"I have absolutely no complaints about parents' making a choice for their child's educational future," said Tina Johnson, the mother of a 9-year-old who attends the Milwaukee public schools. "We should make sure they have viable options. ... The only way to do that is to make sure there is some kind of accountability."

Others oppose altogether the idea of siphoning off public dollars to help support private schools.

The Milwaukee district "is a diverse education system, and if your school does not suit your children, you have choices," said Becky Rehak, the first vice president of the Milwaukee City Council PTA, pointing out that students are not compelled to attend neighborhood schools.

Beyond City Limits

Among the other noteworthy changes incorporated into the legislative package, 60 private schools located in Milwaukee County could accept vouchers from the city school system. Currently, only schools in the city are eligible.

In addition, students throughout Wisconsin would be allowed to attend charter schools in Milwaukee. Now, only city residents can apply.

"The simple fact is that parents want to participate," said Brian J. Pleva, a spokesman for Sen. Cathy Stepp, a Republican. The current limits, he said, "are just not doable."

Vol. 23, Issue 10, Page 25

Published in Print: November 5, 2003, as Wis. Lawmakers Pass Measures to Widen School Voucher Program
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