A proposal to expand the number of private school vouchers in Wisconsin isn’t gaining traction with some Republican lawmakers who have previously backed expanding school choice.
Senate Republicans are opposing increasing the number of students who attend private schools using a taxpayer-funded voucher by making them available to wealthier families, while Assembly Speaker Robin Vos supports the proposal.
The disagreement is another division between the Legislature’s two Republican caucuses that have failed to find agreement yet on a new state spending plan.
Wisconsin is one of just three states to still be without a fiscal 2018 spending plan. State law requires the two-year budget to be in place by July 1, but spending continues at previous levels without one.
While transportation funding has caused the stalemate to continue into July, how the state should spend money on schools is among other issues that remain unresolved.
One budget proposal on the table is to raise the income level that makes a family eligible to apply for a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend a private school participating in the statewide voucher program — one of four such programs in Wisconsin.
Currently, eligible families must have a combined income of 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $45,263 for a family of four.
The proposal under consideration is to raise the income limit to 300 percent, which would mean a family of four could make $73,401 and still be eligible for a voucher in the statewide program.
Kit Beyer, spokeswoman for Vos, R-Rochester, said the GOP Assembly leader supports the proposal. But Senate Republicans aren’t on board.
“This voucher program is for individuals who cannot afford to send their children to (private schools),” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, co-chairwoman of the Joint Finance Committee. “We just felt that that was too high of an income to have taxpayers to be paying for options for vouchers ... We felt at 300 percent of (the federal poverty level), there are a lot of people who are not considered low-income.”
It’s unclear if Gov. Scott Walker, who has previously championed expansions, would support the idea.
“The governor supports the K-12 education budget he introduced to the Legislature five months ago,” spokesman Tom Evenson said when asked if Walker would support the proposal. “It provides a $649 million increase in funding for our schools, bringing funding for K-12 to an all-time high. After visiting nearly 50 public schools this year, the governor has seen overwhelming support for his plan.”
Walker’s budget did not include the proposal to increase income eligibility for vouchers, and Evenson did not say whether Walker would sign a budget that included an increase.
Beyer said Vos thinks “it’s unfortunate that Senate Republicans refuse to give more families the opportunity to choose the best school for their children.” Jim Bender, a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin, said lawmakers’ haven’t had much energy to discuss anything other than transportation.
Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said the matter is still up in the air.
Raising the income limit to 300 percent of the federal poverty level would put the income limits for the statewide program on par with the older voucher systems in Milwaukee and Racine.
The statewide program has been questioned by Democrats in part because the majority of students using the vouchers were already enrolled in private schools.
Department of Public Instruction spokesman Tom McCarthy said State Superintendent Tony Evers and department officials are not in favor of raising the income limits, or lifting the cap on enrollment, another proposal Senate Majority Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said earlier this year he would support including in the 2017-19 state budget.
“You’re asking public taxpayers to pick up the dime for it,” McCarthy said. He said lawmakers need to fund an increase in vouchers “otherwise it’s coming out of other people’s pockets.”
Reporter Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.