School superintendents and Democratic legislators from northeast Wisconsin expressed their opposition to the expansion of private school vouchers at a public event in the rotunda of the Brown County Courthouse on June 17. The expansion, the officials said, was being forced on them from Madison and would drain money from the public schools. David Polashek, the superintendent of the Oconto Falls School district said, "We have a great, working relationship with our local private elementary schools. Some parents choose that option and are proud to pay for making that decision. They never asked for an expanded voucher program."
According to the Democratic legislators, sentiment in their districts is strongly against the expansion of private school vouchers. Rep. Eric Genrich (Dem-Green Bay) said that communications received by his office indicate that a majority of his constituents oppose the voucher expansion by a ratio of at least six to one. He and the other legislators told this reporter that Republicans were promoting the expansion of vouchers not because of demand from the voters but because supporters of the expansion had been large donors to Republican politicians. This is a case where money trumps the will of the voters.
Expansion of Vouchers Will Drain State Money From the Public Schools
Legislators and school superintendents in Northeast Wisconsin are concerned that the expansion of vouchers will ultimately lead to a large drop in state support for public education. The fiscal effect of the current proposal will be small because the proposal contains strict limits on the number of students who can participate, but no one expects that those limits will last because there will be great pressure to eliminate them. As Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction said recently,
"Let's be clear, no cap on voucher enrollment or income limits has ever stayed in place over the past 20 years," Evers said. "History shows -- and I predict -- these caps are temporary. And, the result will be more and more funding pulled out of public school classrooms and put into private and religious schools."
Stan Mack, superintendent of the Oshkosh public schools pointed out in the June 17 meeting that the expansion proposal would not prevent current private school students from receiving vouchers. If they receive the vouchers, a great deal of money will be drained from the public schools. An example from the Fox Cities (Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, Kimberley, Combined Locks and Kaukauna) shows the scale of the expected effect. The Fox Cities have 12 private schools that offer secondary education through the 12th grade, and the schools enroll about 2,900 students. In the second year of the proposed voucher program, the voucher amount will be $7,000 per student, and if half of the students receive the vouchers, the total amount lost to the public schools in the Fox Cities will be $10.15 million.
The proposed state budget contains other provisions that will probably reduce state aid for education still further. The budget includes a general reduction in state income taxes and a deduction for private school tuition, and both of these will reduce the amount of money that the state can use for the support of public education. As Superintendent Polashek said:
"Wisconsinites need to make a choice. Do we want to maintain our excellent public school system, which has attracted people from across the country and acted as a main selling point [for businesses to locate here], or do we want to create two, separate but unequal school systems -- one public and one private -- and fail at both? If we cannot adequately fund the current education system, how can we afford to fund two systems?"
Reduction in State Aid Will Lead to Increased Property Taxes
Faced with large reductions in state aid for public education, the school systems of northeast Wisconsin will have to do what they can to make up for the loss by raising local property taxes. State Senator Dave Hansen (Dem-Green Bay) estimates that property taxes in Green Bay will increase by at least $3 million. In effect, the proposed budget will shift a large share of the cost of public education from the state to the local districts. The state relies mainly on the income tax, which falls more heavily on the rich, while the local districts rely on the property tax, which falls more heavily on the middle class. So, this is yet another example of the radical rightist drive to give money to the very rich while increasing the burden born by the middle class.
The Voucher Plan Does Not Include Accountability for Private Schools
Lee Allinger, the superintendent of the Appleton School District said in an interview reported in the Post-Crescent on June 18, 2013 that private schools are not held to the same standards of accountability and performance that public schools are held to. In the interview, he said that public schools must meet licensing requirements for teachers, educate all students -- including English Language Learners and those with special needs -- and participate in the School Report Card, which is one element that defines school performance. Private schools do not. Superintendent Allinger added, "There's this idea of a double standard. ... If your school has the majority of its funding coming through vouchers, should you not be held to the same level of accountability [as the public schools]?"
We Can and Should Do Better For Our Kids
Rep. Genrich summed it up well, when he said:
"The education policies included in the proposed budget hike property taxes, expand school vouchers statewide, disproportionately increase spending for voucher schools, and fail to offer sufficient classroom funding to maintain high quality public education. We can and should do better for our kids."