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Wisconsin to Expand Private School Voucher Program Statewide

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By guest blogger Sean Meehan

When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker submitted a proposed budget to the state legislature in February, few of the many reforms on his wish list were as scrutinized or criticized as his plan to implement a statewide private school voucher program. Despite opposition by many Democrats and Republicans alike, the version of the budget that was recently, albeit narrowly, approved by the legislature and which now awaits the governor's signature leaves most of his voucher program intact.

In 1990, Wisconsin became the first state to implement a private school voucher program, in which low and middle income families can receive a government voucher to help pay for private school for their children. Until now the program has been limited to Milwaukee and Racine.

The budget bill, which Walker is expected to sign, will expand that program to the entire state while also placing a 500-student enrollment cap on voucher schools, which will double after next year. Already operating voucher schools in Milwaukee and Racine are exempt from the enrollment cap.

"It's great to see Wisconsin getting back into being the national leader on school choice," said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which advocates nationally for voucher programs and other programs that increase school options. "We're beginning to see a focus on vouchers as a way to really increase options for families."

Though approved by both houses, the bill could change dramatically due to Wisconsin's broad veto powers, which allow Walker to do line and even single-word vetoes on a bill.

Many have criticized the program as an irresponsible use of state money. One of the most outspoken critics of the voucher program's expansion is State Superintendent Tony Evers, who in a letter to the governor called the program "academically unproven and financially reckless." Evers argues that money should be used to bolster Wisconsin's public school system rather than funding alternatives.

"Statewide expansion of the voucher program is nothing short of a massive new entitlement program, putting Wisconsin taxpayers on the hook for not one, but two publicly funded school systems," he said in the letter.

Evers and other opponents are also worried about a potential loophole in the bill that could allow Milwaukee and Racine schools to open satellite campuses across the state, thereby avoiding the enrollment cap. Most proponents of the bill have said that their interpretation of the bill doesn't allow for such satellite schools, though many are still willing to work to formally close the loophole.

The bill also increases the amount of each voucher, a move that drew praise from school choice organizations and ire from those opposed to the expansion.

"The voucher amount is fantastic," Enlow of the Friedman Foundation said. "A great, high voucher amount like this allows for increased opportunities for new entrants in the marketplace."

In addition to increasing the voucher amount, the budget also calls for tax deductions for families with children in private schools. Unlike the vouchers, this deduction is available to people of all income levels, an approach that Evers slammed in his letter.

"During a budget when no additional funds were provided for special education, school breakfast, or sparsity, this tax deduction will cost an estimated $30 million in 2014-15 to subsidize the private school for families that can already afford the cost of tuition," he said.

Voucher programs have long been controversial because they can be used for religious schools, which some see as a violation of the separation of church and state. However, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that vouchers are aid to the parents rather than the schools, and the vouchers can therefore be used for any purpose without violating the separation of church and state.

With the governor's signature, Wisconsin will join Louisiana and Indiana as the third state to implement a statewide voucher program in the past three years.

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