Democratic Gov. Tony Evers wants to cap enrollment in Wisconsin’s private voucher schools, setting up another fight with Republicans who made it a priority the past eight years to expand the program statewide.
The proposal will be part of Evers’ two-year state budget on Thursday. Many parts of the spending plan that Evers has previewed in recent days, including allowing immigrants living in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition at the University of Wisconsin, have drawn Republican opposition.
“(Evers) continues to make a bipartisan budget nearly impossible,” Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, tweeted in reaction to his higher education plan on Sunday.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Evers’ plan to freeze voucher school enrollments would do “immense harm” to the program and create uncertainty for schools, students and families.
“Republicans in the Legislature have spent years helping build the voucher program,” Fitzgerald said. “We will not support a budget that includes this proposal.”
The fights over education policy are just a couple of the budget battles that loom for Evers and Republicans in what is expected to be a long, tough struggle to reach agreement. Evers last week vetoed a Republican-authored income tax plan as he prepares to include his own proposal in the budget.
The in-state tuition proposal is part of Evers’ plan to spend $150 million more at the UW System over the next two years, while also extending a tuition freeze for two more years. It’s been in place for the past six years.
UW System President Ray Cross and UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank both praised the “investment” portion of Evers’ plan in separate tweets over the weekend, but they did not comment specifically on the in-state tuition policy change.
Democrats passed a law in 2009 that granted in-state tuition to people living in the U.S. illegally who had graduated from Wisconsin high schools. Republicans revoked it in 2011.
Evers was a member of the UW Board of Regents the past nine years in his capacity as state schools superintendent. He’s also been a longtime critic of a program that uses taxpayer money to pay for vouchers for people to send their children to private schools.
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Republican backers tout the programs as giving parents in poor-performing public-school districts another option. Democrats, public-school advocates and teachers unions have opposed the programs, saying they take needed money away from public schools.
Evers will propose freezing the number of students who can enroll in voucher schools statewide, while also suspending the creation of new independent charter schools until 2023. He also wants to eliminate a program intended for Milwaukee that requires county officials to turn consistently poor-performing schools into charter schools without district officials’ approval.
Evers is also calling for requiring all teachers working in private schools that accept taxpayer-funded voucher students to be licensed like public school teachers. He also wants to give taxpayers more information on property tax bills about how much of their money is going to fund voucher schools. He’s also calling for a cap on enrollment in the voucher program for students with disabilities.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported on Evers’ plans Monday.
‘Accountable and transparent’
Evers, in a statement, said the plan was intended to make sure voucher schools are “accountable and transparent.” He has long argued that the state cannot afford to maintain a public school system while funding private voucher and charter schools without spending more. Evers plans to call for a 10 percent, or $1.4 billion, increase in K-12 education spending, a figure Republicans have said is too much.
Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, opposed Evers’ proposal to freeze enrollment for the voucher and charter programs.
“It will not result in better academic outcomes for anyone,” Bender said. “It will, however, pour gas on the fire of opposition for those who view the education of our children through a singular, political lens.”