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No limits on school vouchers in statewide program in Scott Walker's budget
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K-12 EDUCATION

No limits on school vouchers in statewide program in Scott Walker's budget

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An unlimited number of Wisconsin students could use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools in the statewide voucher program, under Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed two-year budget.

Walker would also start paying for the program with money that otherwise would go to public schools.

In addition to eliminating the 1,000-student cap in the statewide voucher program, Walker’s proposed 2015-17 budget would create a new statewide board to authorize new charter schools.

“Unfortunately, this budget proposal clearly prioritizes private school vouchers, the authorization of independent charters and politics over real support for public schools and our students,” Madison School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said in a statement.

The governor also offers his own school accountability proposal and calls for a ban on the use of the Smarter Balanced exams, which are tied to the Common Core State Standards and scheduled to be given to students in grades 3-8 starting next month.

While state school districts can choose which academic standards to use, federal testing requirements often lead them to adopt the state’s standards. Smarter Balanced exams are costlier than the state expected, but other state tests aligned to the Common Core that Walker would continue to fund also are more expensive than anticipated.

Funding for public schools would remain largely flat, and revenue limits for school districts remain unchanged in the proposal. Walkers calls for a $105.6 million school levy tax credit for each of the budget’s years and a $108.1 million increase in general equalization aid in 2016-17.

“(To) hear essentially public schools will for the most part be receiving no more money, but clearly their expenses go up every year, that is not a good deal,” said state schools Superintendent Tony Evers.

School accountability

Walker also called for new school report cards to include letter grades for schools and a weighting system that takes into account a school’s student poverty level, students’ disabilities, and number of years a student has attended that school. He also calls for giving school districts an option of tests to take that would be used in the school’s report card grade. The proposal joins dueling pieces of legislation also addressing school accountability in the Senate and Assembly.

Evers said using results of multiple tests in the state’s accountability system will diminish the transparency of the schools’ report cards.

Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, author of the Senate school accountability bill, said Tuesday the Senate will still work on its accountability bill, and is likely going to remove the legislation’s proposal to create two review boards for schools at the state’s DPI and Department of Administration.

In explaining his proposed changes to school accountability in a brief on the budget, Walker wrote “most accountability proposals have focused on state oversight and decrees.”

“Instead, school accountability measures should result in simple yet comprehensive information that helps parents make education decisions, not increased bureaucracy,” the brief said.

Voucher expansion

The state has three separate voucher systems — in Milwaukee, Racine and a statewide program capped at 1,000 students. Walker’s proposal would fold Racine’s program into the statewide program while lifting the cap on enrollment and number of schools.

The proposal would be open to public school students and private school students entering kindergarten, first grade and ninth grade. In its first two years, more than 70 percent of those receiving vouchers in the statewide program were already enrolled in a private school.

Eligible families are those who earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. The funding model would change and come directly from public schools’ state aid, by pooling together the aid payment school districts receive for each student leaving with a voucher, and distributing it equally among all voucher schools.

In all, Walker proposes $4.9 million in 2015-16 and $12.3 million in 2016-17 for the changes to the program.

Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said the governor’s proposal enables the “large number of parents and schools” that want to get into the statewide program but questioned the funding levels.

Charter schools

The governor’s proposal also calls for $4 million in 2016-17 to create an appointed state board that would oversee the approval of new independent charter school authorizers, including nonprofit organizations. The board would consist of the state superintendent and 10 other political appointees, including two from the governor, six from the Legislature and two from the state superintendent.

Walker also recommends that in districts with at least 4,000 students and two schools with report card grades of D or F, students “have full ability to attend any independent charter school, while in other districts pupils must seek approval from the resident school board to attend an independent charter school.”

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect the accurate eligibility requirements for students receiving vouchers under the statewide program.

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