Following bitterly partisan debate, the Wisconsin Assembly voted last week to lift the cap on the number of participants in the state’s school voucher program for low-income families in Milwaukee.
On a largely party-line vote—with most Republicans supporting the bill and most Democrats against it—the legislature’s lower chamber sent the measure to the Senate, which is tentatively slated to vote on it on Feb. 8.
Backers of the bill to lift the enrollment cap from about 15,000 to 16,500 students said it was needed to forestall a rationing of seats that could result in youngsters being thrown out of their schools. But opponents, including Gov. James E. Doyle, denounced the measure as an expansion that would come at the financial expense of taxpayers and the Milwaukee public school district.
The bill passed on a vote of 58-35 on Jan. 27, the same day that state education officials announced they were ejecting a private school in Milwaukee from the program because of financial and safety concerns. Democratic opponents of the bill invoked that school, the Academic Solutions Centers for Learning, as they raised objections during floor debate to what they called a lack of accountability in the voucher program.
Calling the program “the Wild West of the education system here in Wisconsin,” Rep. Jon Richards, a Milwaukee Democrat, noted that the state department of public instruction moved against the school after police broke up a student brawl there three days earlier that occurred when teachers did not show up for work.
“I can’t believe this is the Republican Party sending money into a school where they don’t have a teacher there all day,” said Mr. Richards, his voice rising to a near-shout.
But Republicans stressed the successes of the program in providing poor families with the choices for their children that more affluent parents take for granted. And they accused the Democratic governor of failing to bargain in good faith to reach a compromise that would meet objections that have led him to twice veto measures to lift the enrollment cap since the fall of 2003.
Assembly Speaker John G. Gard, a Republican, charged that Mr. Doyle objects to the expansion because he is “joined at the hip” with the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state affiliate of the National Education Association that staunchly opposes the voucher program.
Citing a graduation rate in the Milwaukee public schools that he said is below 50 percent, Mr. Gard said that the choice program was needed because in most Milwaukee public schools, “kids don’t have a chance.”
“When we look at the options, this is the best thing we’ve got going today,” he said of the voucher program.
As the nation’s longest-running program of private school vouchers, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has been the subject of national interest and intense partisan wrangling since before it was started in 1990.
Registration for the 2005-06 school year is set to begin as early as this week in many of the more than 100 religious and secular private schools in the program, which gives poor families about $6,000 per student annually for tuition. With enrollment now close to the cap of just under 15,000 students, the state will start rationing seats unless the cap is lifted.
Gov. Doyle has said he is willing to consider easing the cap, but only if such a bill is part of a broader package that would provide more funding for regular public schools. Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, but they have not mustered the votes to override Mr. Doyle’s vetoes of previous bills to lift the cap.
After last week’s vote, the governor said Republicans have taken an “extreme, uncompromising stance.”
“For far too long, Assembly Republicans have worried too much about the interests of those who want to expand the voucher program instead of working to solve the significant challenges facing all of Milwaukee’s schools,” he said in a written statement.
Other Democrats accused Republicans of hypocritically feigning interest in poor families in Milwaukee for political purposes. “The day that the Republican Party cares about poor people will be the day that hell freezes over,” Rep. Marlin Schneider said during floor debate.
But supporters of the program accused the Democrats of hypocrisy. They charge the governor in particular with repeatedly changing his demands, which they say suggests that he is not serious about reaching a deal that would allow the cap to rise.
“He continues to grandstand on this issue when people are really trying to work out a deal,” said Howard L. Fuller, the chairman of the Milwaukee-based Alliance for Choices in Education and a former superintendent of the Milwaukee district. “There are people in the choice coalition who want to help [the Milwaukee public schools], but you get sand kicked in your face and you’re just supposed to stand and take it.”
Among the private schools taking part in the program, concern is running high, in part because of uncertainty over exactly how the state would ration seats to keep enrollment under the cap, which is set at roughly 15 percent of the number of students in the city’s public school system.
At Prince of Peace School, a Roman Catholic school serving prekindergarten through 8th grade, almost 85 percent of the 384 students participate in the voucher program. Donna Schmidt, the school’s principal, said she would lose 60 seats under one projection that is making the rounds in Milwaukee.
“How do I tell kids that are being successful in school … that they may not be able to return?” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Bill to Expand Milwaukee Vouchers May Be Headed for Veto