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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Republicans Expand Vouchers Statewide

Despite promises and denials, budget amendment applies beyond Racine

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It was no secret that once Republicans took power they would expand taxpayer-funded voucher schools beyond the city of Milwaukee.

After all, out-of-state voucher backers have poured millions into favored candidates' campaigns over the years; Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans are big fans of pumping taxpayer money into private and religious schools with little state oversight; and state leaders of national voucher groups include Scott Jensen and John Gard, two former Republican legislative leaders.

So the question was never if Republicans would expand voucher schools, but just how far they would take it.

And according to the details of a late-night amendment slipped into the state budget, Republicans are going to take it very far indeed—to every corner of the state.

The budget amendment was promoted as a way to expand voucher schools into Racine—something that had been promised by state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington), the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee—while removing Green Bay from the program's potential expansion following objections over that city's inclusion.

But upon closer inspection the amendment actually paves the way for voucher expansion to moderately sized cities throughout the state, including West Allis, Appleton, Madison, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Sheboygan and Superior.

Vos and Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) have promised to clean up the amendment's language in a separate bill and single out only Racine for vouchers, though that easily could have been done last week. Walker's spokesman promised that the governor would not use his line-item veto powers to play with the budget's wording and immediately expand vouchers statewide.

Middle-Income Families Can Receive Vouchers

Expanding vouchers beyond the city limits of Milwaukee isn't the only change Republicans made in the budget, which passed on party-line votes in both houses of the state Legislature.

The budget also increases a family's income eligibility for vouchers, which originally had been offered only to Milwaukee's lower-income families. Previously, a family of four would have to earn less than $39,113 to be eligible for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

Thanks to the new budget, however, a family of four headed by a single parent could earn up to $67,050 to qualify for vouchers; a family of four with two parents could earn up to $74,050 to qualify.

The budget also eliminates the enrollment cap on MPCP.

In addition, any religious or private school in the state is now eligible to take voucher students from Milwaukee.

State Superintendent Tony Evers blasted the voucher program's expansion statewide at the same time Republican lawmakers have slashed $1.6 billion from funding for public education.

“There have been no public hearings, nor disclosure of these plans,” Evers said in a sharply worded statement after the amendment's passage in the state Assembly.

But Betsy DeVos, head of the Washington, D.C.-based pro-privatization group American Federation for Children—which has a long history of meddling in Wisconsin elections and now employs former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen—had nothing but praise for the voucher expansion.

“We thank the leadership in the Legislature for delivering this victory to low- and middle-income families across Wisconsin,” DeVos wrote in a press release.

A Serious Legal Challenge

While Republicans are eagerly repaying their campaign donors for their support over the years, a coalition of civil rights groups has filed suit in federal court over the MPCP's failure to adequately include and educate children with disabilities.

The groups allege that since 83% of students in voucher schools pay their tuition with taxpayer-funded vouchers, these allegedly private schools are really public schools that must adhere to anti-discrimination laws.

These private schools currently discriminate against students with disabilities, the suit alleges. While almost 20% of the Milwaukee Public Schools' (MPS) student population has at least one disability, only 1.6% of voucher schools' students have a disability. The statewide average is 14.3%.

“Wisconsin's creation, implementation and expansion of a private school voucher program in Milwaukee has resulted in a dual system of education in the city,” the suit argues. “There is essentially one option for students with disabilities: MPS. Students without disabilities have a publicly funded 'choice': They can attend private schools with a publicly funded voucher or choose to stay in public schools.”

The suit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation Racial Justice Program, ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation, Disability Rights Wisconsin, and parents whose children with disabilities were turned down by a voucher school or expelled from a voucher school after a disability was discovered.

Voucher supporters have played down the seriousness of the suit's allegations, saying that voucher schools admit more students with disabilities than the state recognizes and that efforts to increase state funding for voucher students with disabilities hasn't been supported by voucher opponents.

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