Key Madison education and political leaders vowed Sunday to oppose Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to expand private school vouchers to the state’s second-largest school district.
“It’s simply an attack on local control and the whole nature of public education,” Madison School Board member Ed Hughes said. “It’s something we’re going to have to oppose as vigorously as we can.”
Walker’s proposal would expand vouchers to districts with at least 4,000 students and two or more schools rated in the lowest two of five tiers in the state’s new school report cards. According to the first round of report cards released last fall, Madison had nine elementary, two middle and one high school in the second-lowest “meets few expectations” tier and no schools in the lowest “fails to meet expectations” tier.
“Most people in Madison would reject that notion that we have failing schools in Madison,” Hughes said.
Madison schools Superintendent Jane Belmore and three board members who were reached Sunday — James Howard, Mary Burke and Marj Passman — also said they oppose vouchers in Madison.
Mayor Paul Soglin and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi also rejected Walker’s proposal, saying it wouldn’t get at the root cause of problems in the schools, specifically poverty.
Soglin added that during the discussion in recent years about how to raise achievement levels of low-income and minority students in Madison schools, “an expanded voucher system received virtually no support.”
Soglin said Walker never spoke with him about expanding vouchers to Madison. In his experience with five previous Republican and Democratic governors, Soglin said, he has “not experienced a budgetary shift of this magnitude without consultation.”
“If someone wants to help us improve education in Madison, the first thing they should do is ask for our advice and consult with the people of Madison,”
Urban League of Greater Madison president Kaleem Caire, who unsuccessfully proposed a charter school for low-income and minority students in 2011, said he didn’t think vouchers were necessary in Madison. He said he would discuss with his board a formal response to the governor’s proposal once more details became available.
“It will cause a lot of anxiety in Madison,” Caire said. “If my little charter school caused anxiety, I mean, come on. That’s something Democrats are pushing all over the country except here.”
Michael Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Madison diocese, said while the diocese supports vouchers philosophically, it has not been advocating specifically to bring them to Madison. The Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, of which the Madison diocese is a member, has been lobbying for statewide expansion.
“We didn’t actively advocate for (Walker) to put Madison in the equation,” Lancaster said. “If vouchers come, we support them, but even our principals weren’t educated about what they were and how they work (before late last year).”
After Republicans retained control of state government in last fall’s elections, principals at local schools met with WCRIS executive director Matt Kussow to learn more about voucher schools.
Lancaster said individual schools will decide whether to participate in the program, but he couldn’t say for certain whether any would. He also said there hasn’t been a widespread call for vouchers from families, though now that the governor proposed vouchers for Madison, there might be more families who express interest.
“Has there been a real clamor for it here? No. We haven’t had 10,000 families come and tell us we need to get vouchers in Madison,” Lancaster said. “But are there some out there who support it? I think there are.”