Gov. Tony Evers' first state budget will seek to halt the growth of Wisconsin's private voucher school and independent charter school programs in a move that has already prompted pushback from conservatives.
"I’ve said all along that addressing the pressing issues facing our state starts with education," Evers, who previously served for about 10 years as state Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in a statement. "We have to fully fund our public schools, and we have to make sure voucher schools are accountable and transparent, not just for kids and parents, but for Wisconsin taxpayers, too."
Evers is set to deliver his first budget address Thursday evening, but has shared some details from the spending plan with reporters in the weeks leading up to it. His plans for voucher and charter schools were first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Monday, then shared with other reporters later that day.
Aides to the governor framed the proposal as a way to reduce property taxes and to discuss funding sources for the voucher program without affecting currently-enrolled students.
Opponents of the plan accused Evers of favoring teachers' unions over students.
"Evers’ budget would end school choice as Wisconsin knows it," said C.J Szafir, executive vice president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, in a statement.
Starting in 2021, Evers' budget would cap the number of taxpayer-funded vouchers available for students to enroll in private schools throughout the state, including in the state's separate school choice programs in Milwaukee and Racine, at the level of enrollment in 2020. As students graduate, existing slots would open up, but no new slots would be created.
According to estimates provided by the governor's office, there are currently 28,067 students and 129 schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, 3,242 students and 26 schools participating in the Racine Parental Choice Program, and 6,878 students and 213 schools participating in the statewide program.
Evers aides estimate his proposals to freeze Milwaukee enrollment would save the state about $3 million. The freezes in the Racine and statewide programs are estimated to reduce property taxes by about $25 million in 2021.
Enrollment in the state's special needs voucher program for students with disabilities would also be capped starting in 2021.
Evers' plan would require private schools participating in a choice program to employ licensed teachers by July 1, 2022 — but teachers who have been teaching in a participating school for five years could apply for a waiver. Voucher schools would also have to be fully accredited, rather than pre-accredited.
The governor's budget would also halt the creation of new independent charter schools until 2023 and would eliminate a program that allows low-performing public schools in Milwaukee to be turned over to charter schools without the approval of district officials.
The Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association praised the governor's proposal.
"Educators from Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver and West Virginia have been striking against public resources going to fund unaccountable private schools, so it is encouraging to see Gov. Evers taking a first step toward reining in this unsustainable system," said MTEA president Amy Mizialko in a statement. "MTEA will continue fighting toward a sunset for vouchers and private charters and for a single, accountable public education system."
Evers would also require property tax bills to include information about the cost of voucher programs.
"Wisconsinites should have more choices when it comes to the education of their children, not fewer," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. "Budget leaks of far-left proposals like these only make bipartisan compromise more difficult. Republicans in the Legislature have spent years helping build the voucher program. We will not support a budget that includes this proposal."