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Lighthouse Christian

Lighthouse Christian School student Samuel Delgado walks a hallway during a break in classes. The small private school in Madison accepts taxpayer-funded vouchers from some students for tuition.

An Assembly committee Thursday abruptly scrapped a vote on a proposal to reduce the amount of money public school districts can raise to offset the loss of state aid for taxpayer-funded private school vouchers.

The decision by Assembly Education Committee chairman Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, came less than an hour before a scheduled 1 p.m. vote and hours after the Wisconsin State Journal began asking questions about the proposal. School officials also mobilized against the idea Thursday.

It could result in a $22 million loss in taxing authority for public schools, according to a Wisconsin Association of School Boards memo to members.

Committee clerk Hariah Hutkowski said Thursday’s vote was canceled in order to work out “logistics and concerns.” It could be rescheduled for next week, he said.

The idea was introduced Wednesday by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, as an amendment to another voucher bill. It would change the existing voucher funding system, which Vos proposed and was implemented for the first time this year after lawmakers revamped the system and removed the program’s enrollment cap in the 2015-17 budget.

The state voucher system is paid for by reducing state aid to school districts — about $16.1 million this year. Lawmakers allow districts to make up that money — and more, a total of $21.4 million — by raising taxes. This year schools raised nearly $20 million to offset the loss of state aid because of the voucher program.

Now Vos wants to limit that amount of money.

Vos characterized the funding formula passed in the budget as a “misdrafting” that resulted in high property tax hikes in some districts.

He pointed to Racine as an example, where the district used all of its levy authority, about $5.6 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Of that amount, about $3.3 million of the new revenue would be wiped out by Vos’s amendment, according to the school boards association.

Department of Public Instruction spokesman Tom McCarthy said lawmakers passed specific budget language outlining how the calculations would work.

“This is what the Legislature and Joint Finance Committee voted on and passed into law,” he said.

Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said the proposal would make the voucher program funding process more in line with the state’s open enrollment program.

When students enroll in another school district through open enrollment, most of the state’s funding for that student goes with the student to their new school district. That student’s home district is still able to count that student in their revenue limit calculation, however, allowing the home district to keep some state aid to pay for operational expenses.

Beyer said the new proposal limits school districts’ “ability to raise property taxes for a student they are not actually educating, who would be in the choice program.”

WASB lobbyist Dan Rossmiller said public school districts’ revenue would be reduced by about $4,000 per student each year — resulting in multi-million dollar revenue losses for school districts with higher numbers of voucher students living in the district.

An analysis showed school districts’ revenue limit authority would be reduced by $22 million, affecting 142 school districts, according to WASB.

Rossmiller said the idea behind the new funding structure included in the 2015-17 state budget was to ensure school districts who lose state aid to pay for school vouchers are able to recoup that money.

The new proposal “will hurt public schools,” he said.

The proposal was introduced as an amendment to a bill that had already had a public hearing and just a day before a scheduled committee vote. Madison School District superintendent Jennifer Cheatham took issue with the quick turnaround.

“You are now being asked to vote on these amendments today, with no chance for the public to understand or for school districts to weigh in on the harmful impact of what you are voting on,” Cheatham wrote in a Feb. 4 letter to lawmakers. “Rather than thoughtful consideration of what is best for schools in our state and the children that attend them, these are rushed amendments with no clear intent besides harming public schools.”

Under the current funding formula, school districts lose $7,214 in aid for each K-8 student and $7,860 for high school students enrolling in private voucher schools. Districts are allowed to levy to cover the loss.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Scott Walker did not respond to a request for comment. Myranda Tanck, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Fitzgerald was not available for comment on Thursday.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.