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Education proposals heat up governor's race as conservative coalition forms to push for expanded school choice in Wisconsin

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One City Schools

A new coalition of conservatives, policy groups and advocacy organizations has begun developing a package of education goals for the coming legislative session — with expanded school choice as a top priority — that could play a considerable role in the upcoming race for governor this November.

Officials with the Wisconsin Coalition for Education Freedom say the goal is to give parents and students more options. But the proposals also stand in stark contrast to priorities laid out by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — setting up an education policy battle in the Nov. 8 election, in which Evers, a former educator and state superintendent who has opposed expanded private school vouchers, faces businessman Tim Michels, a Republican who has pledged to expand school choice offerings across Wisconsin.

“The election is critically important,” said Susan Mitchell, a longtime advocate for school vouchers and founder of School Choice Wisconsin. “Gov. Evers, both as (Department of Public Instruction) superintendent and as governor, has repeatedly opposed the expansion of these programs. Tim Michels has made public a completely opposite sort of perspective, so it matters a lot in terms of getting things done.”

The coalition, launched Thursday, includes conservative groups Americans for Prosperity, Badger Institute and law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, as well as education stakeholders such as American Federation for Children, virtual education company K12/Stride, School Choice Wisconsin and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying organization.

The group did not provide specific legislative proposals, but officials told the Wisconsin State Journal the two biggest priorities will be “school choice for all families” and legislation seeking to establish a “Parental Bill of Rights,” letting parents sue a school district or school official if they don’t allow parents to determine the names and pronouns used for the child while at school, review instructional materials and outlines used by the child’s school and access any education-related information regarding the child, among other measures.

Evers vetoed a GOP-authored bill last session that would have extended those powers to parents, stating in an April 15 veto message he opposed it “because I object to sowing division in our schools, which only hurts our kids and learning in our classrooms.”

He also vetoed a measure that would have vastly expanded private school vouchers by eliminating the income limits in the statewide, Milwaukee County and Racine County private school voucher programs, as well as create a temporary education expense reimbursement program for public school students. A fiscal report estimated the bill could raise property taxes as much as $577 million.

School vouchers

Wisconsin operates four programs that provide taxpayer-funded vouchers for income-eligible families to send their children to private schools.

The Milwaukee voucher program started in 1990-91 under former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and is the oldest modern voucher program in the country. In the first year, the program enrolled 337 students. Enrollment has grown almost every year, with 28,770 students attending 129 private schools on vouchers in Milwaukee as of last October.

Another voucher program in Racine started in the 2011-12 school year, followed by a statewide program in 2013-14, and a fourth for students with disabilities in 2016. More than 47,000 students were enrolled in private schools using a voucher in the Milwaukee, Racine and statewide programs last fall, according to data compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Mitchell said vouchers are even more popular following disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A School Choice Wisconsin Action poll published last month found that likely voters favor Wisconsin’s school choice programs by a 51-23 margin.

“Everybody has a story where … one way or another, whether you’re a parent, a friend, a grandparent, whatever, you know somebody where things weren’t working for a family, and their child would have been better off would there have been a different situation open,” Mitchell said.

Scott Manley, executive vice president of government relations with Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, said the state’s chamber of commerce joined the coalition with a focus on the state’s ongoing labor force challenges, which he said have been further exacerbated by a talent pool that lacks proficiency in reading and math.

“We believe that giving more families options in terms of how to educate their children will improve those numbers and be a disruptive force that essentially forces our K-12 schools to do a better job, because if they’re not doing a good job educating our children and they’re not making progress in terms of improving our reading and math proficiencies, parents are going to pull their kids out of public schools,” Manley said. “We think introducing additional options and competition into the marketplace will lead to improvement, and employers believe that improvement is desperately needed right now.”

Differing proposals

While proponents of school voucher programs say the matter shouldn’t be partisan, Wisconsinites have remained largely divided on the topic, with Democrats arguing voucher programs bleed money from public schools and force communities to turn to referendums for operating funds. Republicans have touted vouchers as providing options for students struggling in public schools and for families who might not otherwise be able to afford private school tuition.

In his first budget proposal as governor, Evers attempted to freeze voucher enrollment, but the proposal was quickly rejected by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Evers has long called for more state funding for schools and on Tuesday unveiled plans to spend nearly $2 billion more on public schools in the state’s 2023-25 biennial budget, with a focus on areas like literacy, staffing and mental health services.

The governor’s plan would also increase school district revenue limits by $350 per pupil in the 2023-24 school year and another $650 per pupil in the following year. Per-pupil aid would also increase under Evers’ plan, by $24 per student in the 2023-24 school year and $45 in the following year. In addition, Evers said his proposal to direct about $800 million in new state aid to schools would ensure that per-pupil aid increases do not raise property taxes.

Such a proposal may face an uphill battle in next year’s budget deliberations, however, as it will need approval from the GOP-led Legislature.

Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who co-chairs the Legislature’s budget committee, said the committee will consider Evers’ proposal if it becomes a part of the executive budget request next year.

“Lacking from this proposal is a plan to protect parents’ rights to have more choices and involvement in their child’s education, which is critical to supporting families in our state,” Born said in a statement.

Michels has proposed expanding school choice options to all Wisconsinites and has said he would sign the “Parental Bill of Rights” if elected governor.

Michels spokesperson Anna Kelly said in an email Michels “supports school choice for all families so that Wisconsin parents are empowered with information and options to make decisions that best meet the needs of their kids.”

Under Michels, Kelly added, “all schools will improve and Wisconsin families will have access to a school that meets their needs, regardless of their income or ZIP code.”

Several studies on the effectiveness of voucher programs around the country have found a positive effect on voucher student test scores, though a few have found no effect or a negative effect, according to a review by University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf.

Wolf’s 2012 study of the Milwaukee program comparing public and voucher students found a mixed bag on test scores, but higher graduation rates and higher likelihood of enrolling in college. A follow-up study, however, found rates of college degree attainment were similar.

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