Republicans to increase school funding, expand vouchers

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin public schools would get $100 more per student in the second year of the state budget but lose money when students opt to take a voucher to attend private school, under a Republican-backed proposal the Legislature's budget committee debated Tuesday.

Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee put forward a wide-ranging education package to be voted on late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. Democrats did not have the votes to stop it.

The package included eliminating the enrollment cap in the private-school voucher program and allowing students with disabilities to participate for the first time, requiring high school students to pass a civics test and making it possible for people without a bachelor's degree to obtain a teaching certificate.

The committee plans to finish work on the state budget next week, then send the entire two-year spending plan on to the full Senate and Assembly for a vote next month. Walker, a likely presidential candidate, has said he won't announce a White House run until after he signs the budget into law.

Some of the moves unveiled Tuesday — like creating a special needs voucher program — were not proposed by Walker. Republican lawmakers also came up with a plan to undo a $127 million cut in public school funding next year proposed by Gov. Scott Walker. While Walker's budget held aid for public schools flat over two years, the new plan would increase funding by $100 per student, or about $69 million, above current levels in the second year.

Budget committee co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, defended their plan as Democrats called for nearly half a billion dollars more to be spent on schools.

"We don't want the schools to suffer," Darling said at a news conference.

But Democrats railed against the proposal, in particular diverting millions of dollars from public schools to expand the private school voucher program.

"It's not going to be Armageddon for public schools tomorrow, but we're on that road," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton.

Walker had proposed eliminating the 1,000-student enrollment cap on the statewide private school voucher program, but proponents objected because the way he funded it would have lowered the amount of the payment to students.

The budget committee plan would create a new funding mechanism to treat voucher students similar to those in public school who use open enrollment to attend another nearby public school. That approach, based on an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, would result in public schools losing about $48 million in funding over the next two years.

Under the proposal, in the next two years no more than 1 percent of a district's population could enroll in a voucher school anywhere in state except for Milwaukee, which has its own voucher program. After that, the enrollment limit would increase by 1 percentage point until it reaches 10 percent of the school's total enrollment. After that, there would be no limit.

If 1 percent of all roughly 794,000 public school students outside of Milwaukee took a voucher, about 8,000 students would be in the program.

This year there were 1,000 students in the two-year-old statewide program and about 1,700 in Racine, where vouchers began in 2011.

Creating a special needs voucher program, funded similar to the regular program with money coming out of aid to public schools, drew opposition from a coalition of disabilities rights groups. They have long opposed the move, saying students won't have the same rights in private schools they're guaranteed in public schools.

Special needs vouchers "are not correlated with improved outcomes for students and every proposal introduced to date has lacked any meaningful accountability for either parents or taxpayers," the coalition said.

Under the proposal, students with disabilities would still have to be turned down for open enrollment to another public school before they could get a $12,000 voucher.

Another part of the plan would give control of the worst-performing Milwaukee Public Schools to a commissioner appointed by the county executive who could then convert them into independent charter or private voucher schools.


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