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School Voucher Expansion Approved in Wisconsin, With Two Twists

In a not particularly surprising move, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a budget July 1 that includes a big priority of his—the expansion of the state's existing school voucher program. In the scope of both the $70 billion Wisconsin budget and the state's public school system, the expansion of up to 500 more students next school year statewide and 1,000 more the following year seems relatively modest (the statewide expansion is projected to cost about $14 million) although proponents hope that the growth of school choice doesn't stop there in the state. (Sean Meehan blogged about the voucher plan passed by the legislature at the Charters & Choice blog late last month.)

The pro-voucher American Federation for Children praised the move, and its president, Kevin P. Chavous, added in a statement that he hopes Wisconsin lawmakers "revisit the statewide school choice enrollment caps and special needs scholarships so that more students can receive the education that best fits their needs."

But, in fact, there were a couple of interesting vetoes Walker, a Republican, used regarding vouchers that don't seem to cut cleanly in favor of voucher proponents.

The first veto scaled back limits Wisconsin legislators placed on the release of data on students attending private schools through voucher programs. The language approved by lawmakers said that if the Department of Public Instruction released any such data, it had to release all such data at the same time, "uniformly." An exception was made for school districts and a few other entities seeking the information.

Why was this important? As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains, the language would have prevented reporters, researchers, and others from getting an "early look" at student performance data and disseminating it in the way news outlets often dom, as an advanced look at education data, or from just seeking out some pieces of data. Voucher supporters made it clear the language was aimed at preventing Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who doesn't look kindly on vouchers, from using his non-voucher-friendly attitude in selectively releasing voucher data. Walker used a partial veto, and now the language only applies to when Evers' department "publicly releases data," and only to test scores, enrollment, and waiting lists.

The education department said it's still reviewing what it means, but it looks like the "uniformly" might only apply to things like pre-arranged data dumps and press releases. News outlets might be able to gain further access to specific records after the general release of info by the department. Ultimately, the provision may have to be tested by journalists or others before there's total clarity about what the "partial veto" really means.

The second veto struck down some last-minute language stuck in by Republican voucher supporters that would have circumvented the caps in the prior budget language. The new language would have allowed voucher schools in Milwaukee and Racine to accept voucher students from outside those areas, but not count them against the cap. What was Walker's possible political calculus in deep-sixing that language? Jack Craver of The Capital Times has one possible explanation: "The voucher veto therefore preserves the trust Walker may have built up with Senate moderates, whom he may need again in future policy fights."

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state teachers' union, noted in its summary of the 2013-15 budget Walker signed that the final voucher expansion was smaller than what had been originally discussed. But it says Wisconsin remains a state where, under Walker, vouchers are preferred and traditional public schools are punished: "At the same time that the state is pouring taxpayer dollars into private voucher schools with few strings attached, school districts and educators are being asked to do more."

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