School Choice & Charters

Wis. Lawmakers Pass Measures to Widen School Voucher Program

By Julie Blair — November 05, 2003 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Related Tags:

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Choice & Charters Virtual Charters in Hot Water Again. Accusations of Fraud Prompt $150M Lawsuit
Indiana officials seek to recoup more than $150 million they say was either wrongly obtained or misspent by a consortium of virtual schools.
Arika Herron, The Indianapolis Star
2 min read
Indiana's attorney general Todd Rokita speaks at a news conference on Sept. 16, 2020, in Indianapolis. Rokita filed a lawsuit against a group of online charter schools accused of defrauding the state out of millions of dollars Thursday, July 8, 2021.
Indiana's attorney general Todd Rokita speaks at a news conference on Sept. 16, 2020, in Indianapolis.
Darron Cummings/AP
School Choice & Charters How the Pandemic Helped Fuel the Private School Choice Movement
State lawmakers got a new talking point as they pushed to create and expand programs to send students to private schools.
8 min read
Collage showing two boys in classroom during pandemic wearing masks with cropped photo of feet and arrows going in different directions.
Collage by Gina Tomko/EducationWeek (Images: Getty)
School Choice & Charters Opinion Taking Stock After 30 Years of Charter Schools
Rick Hess speaks with Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, on charter schools turning 30.
8 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Choice & Charters In Fight Over Millions of Dollars for Charter Schools, a Marijuana Tax May Bring Peace
The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted unanimously to rescind a polarizing lawsuit settlement, pending certain stipulations.
Nuria Martinez-Keel, The Oklahoman
3 min read
Money bills cash funds close up Getty
Getty