Monday, April 29, 2013

Private School Voucher Expansion: What is it and what does it mean for us?



By: State Representative Janis Ringhand

Two months.  That’s about how long it’s been since Governor Walker first introduced his 2013-15 state budget.  The budget always provides a clear snapshot of a Governor’s priorities and this session is no different.  From removing the cap on the amount of land that can be sold to foreign entities (individuals or corporations) to the nearly $500 million increase in transportation aid – many of the Governor’s priorities have generated some controversy.  

One area of Governor Walker’s budget that has received a great deal of attention over the last two months is education.  Last session, the Governor cut funding for our schools by $1.6 billion.  Anticipation was high regarding how our public schools would fare this time around.  While education aid receives an increase of just over 1 percent over the biennium – there remains a freeze on spending limits.  So while districts are getting more money, they cannot spend any more than they did last year. 

On the flip side, the private school voucher program received a funding increase of over 29 percent.  Currently this program is operated in just Milwaukee and Racine, however, the budget includes provisions that would expand the program to nine additional districts.  The Beloit School District is one of those nine districts.  It is important to note that this is not something the Beloit School District asked for and they have been clear that they oppose the expansion.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about the expansion of the private school voucher program and so I wanted to use this week’s column to clear up some of the confusion.

Myth: Without expansion of the private school voucher program – families do not have a choice when selecting the right educational path for their child. 

Many Wisconsin school districts already use charter schools and alternative schools to help address the needs of some of their most vulnerable students.  Furthermore through open enrollment, families have the option of enrolling their children in another district if they feel it’s a better fit for their child.  Therefore Wisconsin parents already have other choices available to them if they feel their child’s current education is unsatisfactory.  

Myth: Funding for the private school voucher program does not impact the pocketbooks of our public schools.

Instead of putting more aid into our public schools, the Governor’s budget essentially subsidizes private school education.  As I mentioned earlier, voucher schools are receiving a 29 percent increase in aid.  A great deal of that money will go towards paying tuition for students who already attend private school.  For example in the Racine School District, which the voucher program recently expanded to, nearly half of the students involved in the program already attended private school. Both our rural and urban schools face unique challenges and after talking with our local superintendents it is clear they need every single dollar to help combat those challenges.  For districts where the expansion is proposed, like Beloit, they will be required to help cover costs for the program which results in a direct loss of state aid for them.  According to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Beloit could lose up to $1.3 million in funding.

Myth: Private voucher schools are subject to the same standards as our public schools.

Voucher schools do not require their teachers to be licensed nor are they required to conduct background checks of all school staff.  The federal law that requires public school districts to provide equitable services for students with disabilities does not apply to voucher schools.  They are not even required by state law to hire special education teachers or therapists. Too often our local school districts end up providing services to these children resulting in even higher costs for them.  Finally, voucher schools are not required to establish uniform graduation standards so what constitutes graduation from one voucher school might not permit graduation from the public school system or even a different voucher school. 

Although I do not support the expansion of the voucher program (for the reasons stated above) I realize our existing education system is not perfect.  We have great schools and great teachers in Wisconsin, however, we can always make our classrooms better.  Improving our educational system is an on-going process that requires honesty, open dialogue and a willingness to work together.  I’ve seen it in the school districts throughout the 45th Assembly District and I hope it continues.  Our kids and our future depend on it.

As always, please feel free to contact my office if you have additional questions on this or any other state legislative matter.  I can be reached toll-free at 1-888-534-0045 or by email at Rep.Ringhand@legis.wi.gov.        

###



Janis Ringhand
State Representative
45th Assembly District