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Voucher Hearing

Bambi Statz, a UW-Whitewater professor and former assistant superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction, describes the effect private school vouchers could have on rural schools at a legislative hearing on May 1. "If we have not felt that we have had the ability to support our public school students, then are we really in a position to support a parallel system of education?" she asked

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Public school advocates have intensified their efforts to sway Republican lawmakers on the biggest K-12 education issues in the state budget, which are scheduled for debate Wednesday.

Heading into the holiday weekend, Republicans hadn’t reached an agreement about the most controversial proposal in Gov. Scott Walker’s 2013-15 budget proposal — the expansion of private school vouchers to Madison and other school districts around the state.

But Walker told reporters Friday he was optimistic.

“I think we’re down that path,” he said. “We haven’t got it out there to announce yet, but I think we’re going to get that into the next week.”

At least three Republican senators have said they oppose Walker’s voucher expansion, while three others say they won’t vote for the budget unless a voucher expansion is included.

Republican leaders didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday.

John Forester, a lobbyist for the School Administrators Alliance, sent a message Friday to school officials across the state to contact Republican leadership. He called the message the most urgent in his 12 years lobbying for school districts.

“The feedback I’m receiving inside the Capitol clearly indicates that our pressure is having an impact on this budget process,” Forester said.

At a news conference last week, Democrats announced that they had collected more than 16,000 signatures on a petition to remove the voucher expansion from the budget.

Madison School Board members sent out appeals to constituents asking them to contact members of the Joint Finance Committee, the lawmakers revising Walker’s budget proposal before it goes to the full Senate and Assembly.

In addition to opposing vouchers, public school advocates are calling for an increase in state aid and higher revenue limits, which are a combination of state aid and property taxes.

In recent weeks Walker and Republican leaders have said they want to use a budget surplus to increase state aid to K-12 schools. They also want to increase a tax cut, reducing potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Exactly how much will go to schools versus a tax cut remains unknown.

The biennial surplus for 2013-15 now stands at $744 million, including updated revenue estimates and actions taken by the Joint Finance Committee to cut $152.7 million from the UW System, Legislative Fiscal Bureau director Bob Lang said Friday.

Walker’s budget proposal includes a 1 percent increase in aid in each of the next two years and some reductions in other K-12 funding, resulting in a net increase of $110 million. But he also kept revenue limits flat and hasn’t said whether he will support increasing them.

Two Republican senators who have expressed the most opposition to the voucher expansion, Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, and Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, have called for increasing revenue limits at least $150 per student. If the state increased aid to match that amount, it would cost $289 million, according to the Fiscal Bureau.

Democrats are pressing for a $275 per student increase in the revenue limits in each of the next two years, which would cost $593 million. They want to pay for it by cutting $19 million for the voucher expansion and using a majority of the surplus, Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, said.

The $275 increase would recover the revenue authority that school districts lost in the last state budget, when Walker cut 5.5 percent, or about $550 per pupil, from revenue limits, said Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Middleton.

Pope and other public school advocates have hammered the governor’s budget proposal for not increasing funding for public school students while increasing voucher funding by $1,414 per student.

“How can they defend any of this?” Pope said. “We’ve got proof that the voucher program is not doing a better job of educating than our public schools.”

— Reporter Mary Spicuzza contributed to this report.

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Reporter Mary Spicuzza contributed to this report.

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