School Choice & Charters

Wis. Lawmakers Pass Measures to Widen School Voucher Program

By Julie Blair — November 05, 2003 3 min read

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:

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
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
Mathematics Webinar
Engaging Young Students to Accelerate Math Learning
Join learning scientists and inspiring district leaders, for a timely panel discussion addressing a school district’s approach to doubling and tripling Math gains during Covid. What started as a goal to address learning gaps in
Content provided by Age of Learning & Digital Promise, Harlingen CISD
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 to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive

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 Full-Time Virtual Schools: Still Growing, Still Struggling, Still Resisting Oversight
Nearly 500,000 students now attend full-time online and blended schools, says a new report from the National Education Policy Center.
6 min read
Student attending class from a remote location.
E+
School Choice & Charters Opinion Is Hybrid Home Schooling the Future of Education?
Rick Hess speaks with Mike McShane about hybrid home schooling, which combines the best of home schooling and traditional schooling.
7 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Choice & Charters Oklahoma Charter Schools Granted Local Tax Revenue in 'Seismic' Settlement
A groundbreaking settlement will fundamentally change the way charter schools are funded in Oklahoma, despite vehement opposition.
Nuria Martinez-Keel, The Oklahoman
3 min read
This July 19, 2019 photo shows an Epic Charter Schools office in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted Thursday in favor of an agreement with the state's public charter school association to settle a 2017 lawsuit.
This July 19, 2019 photo shows an Epic Charter Schools office in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted Thursday in favor of an agreement with the state's public charter school association to settle a 2017 lawsuit.
Sue Ogrocki/AP
School Choice & Charters COVID-19 May Energize Push for School Choice in States. Where That Leads Is Unclear
The pandemic is driving legislators' interest in mechanisms like education savings accounts, but the growth may not be straightforward.
8 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature on Jan. 12 at the statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address to state lawmakers on Jan. 12. She's pushing a major school choice expansion.
Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP