Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers Proposes State Budget that Would Slow School Privatization

Wisconsin’s new governor, Tony Evers released a budget plan on Tuesday that confronts the school privatization agenda of former Governor Scott Walker and what remains a Republican-dominated Wisconsin Legislature.  Wisconsin has been a leader among the states which have favored the expansion of private school tuition voucher programs and charter schools.

For the Associated Press, Scott Bauer quotes Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald: “Republicans in the Legislature have spent years helping build the voucher program… We will not support a budget that includes this proposal.”

Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Voucher Program launched the nation’s experiment with school privatization nearly three decades ago.  Whether or not Evers succeeds in curbing what has been Wisconsin’s persistent expansion of vouchers and charters, his budget proposal names many of the ways Wisconsin’s expansion of school privatization has violated the public interest.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Molly Beck describes Evers’ plan: “About 28,000 students attend 129 private schools using a taxpayer-funded voucher in Milwaukee as of the 2018-19 school year. Evers’ proposal would freeze the number of seats available in the program beginning in the 2021-22 school year, allowing new students to enroll only when others graduate or leave the program… Enrollment also would be frozen in private voucher schools in other parts of the state based on the program’s headcount at the end of the current school year.  As of this school year, about 10,000 students attend private schools using a taxpayer-funded voucher outside of Milwaukee… Evers also proposes to cap enrollment in the state’s newest voucher program for students with disabilities… Under Evers’ proposal, voucher schools also would be banned from charging tuition for students living in poverty under the proposal and would be required to allow students to opt out of religious activities.”

Evers’ plan would also curb the growth of charter schools in Wisconsin: “Evers in his spending plan also would suspend programs created by Republicans in recent years to expand independent charter schools in school districts that have persistent gaps in academic achievement between groups of students.”  Under current law several universities, technical colleges, and tribal leaders can authorize the creation of charter schools, but the new proposal, “suspends the organizations’ authority to authorize new charter schools until 2023.”

Finally a program created in 2015 to permit the county to take over low-performing schools in Milwaukee and turn them over to education management organizations will be eliminated if the Legislature approves Evers’ plan.

Evers is quoted, explaining the plan’s purpose: “We have to fully fund our public schools, and we have to make sure voucher schools are accountable and transparent, not just for kids and parents, but for Wisconsin taxpayers, too.”  Evers’ budget proposal increases public school funding by $1.4 billion, including what is described as a massive increase in funding for special education.

How would Evers make private schools receiving vouchers more accountable? “All teachers working in schools receiving taxpayer-funded vouchers would be required to be licensed like public school teachers, and all voucher schools would be required to be accredited before receiving taxpayer funds.”

In last week’s National Education Policy Center (NEPC) Newsletter, NEPC wonders: “Has the tide turned against vouchers?” After tracking actions in which voucher or neovoucher expansions recently failed in Montana, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and an unintended quirk in last year’s federal tax cut law that may crimp the expansion of tuition tax credits, NEPC wonders: “Could the voucher tide be on it way out?  Certainly, it would have a ways to go. Neovouchers currently exist in 19 states, while traditional vouchers are available in at least 15 states and the District of Columbia. Five states have education savings accounts like Arizona’s that cover not only tuition but other educational expenses such as those related to home schooling; five provide individual tax credits for private school expenses; and four offer individual tax deductions. Lawmakers in Georgia plan to expand their neovoucher program, while lawmakers in Kentucky will be pushing to create a neovoucher program.”

An important step toward curbing the privatization of education will be helping the public understand the difference between the ideological appeal of freedom of choice and the damage wrought through the theft of public school funding and the lack of adequate regulation of private schools receiving public dollars.  Whether Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’ new plan to curb school privatization is passed or defeated by Wisconsin’s pro-voucher, pro-charter legislature, Evers deserves credit for showing how the expansion of school choice has undermined public school funding and for naming the ways unaccountable and poorly regulated private schools that accept vouchers fail to protect their students.

Clearly, as NEPC explains, the debate across the states will continue.  This year in Wisconsin a big fight is brewing.

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