Republicans vote to increase school funding, expand vouchers

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — In an early morning vote Wednesday, the Legislature's Republican-controlled budget committee approved a wide-reaching education agenda that would increase funding for public schools, undo enrollment caps on the private school voucher program, create a special needs voucher and target certain low-performing schools for takeover.

The 12-4 vote on education issues in the two-year budget, with all Republicans in support and Democrats against, came at the end of five hours of debate that began around 8 p.m. Tuesday. Republicans broke with Gov. Scott Walker on several key issues, including by reversing a $127 million cut to public schools in the first year.

The Joint Finance Committee was expected to wrap up its votes on the entire budget next week, before sending the entire plan to the full Senate and Assembly for consideration. Walker, a likely presidential candidate, has said he won't announce a White House bid until after he signs the budget likely in late June.

Democrats railed against the education plan, and prolonged the debate for hours by introducing a series of motions to alter the plan, all of which were rejected.

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

At times the rhetoric was heated. Democrat Lena Taylor said the Republican-backed voucher school program has "raped" the students of Milwaukee Public Schools by taking millions of dollars away from the district.

The comparison drew a sharp rebuke from Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield.

"I just find that sick," he said. "That's actually sick."

Under the proposal as adopted by the committee, a $127 million cut Walker proposed in public school funding next year would be undone. 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.

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 voted to eliminate the cap, and instead limit participation to no more than 1 percent of a district's total enrollment. That would increase by 1 percentage point a year for a decade until there would be no cap.

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.

The program, modeled after open enrollment for public schools, is estimated to cost public schools about $48 million over the next two years.

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.

But Republican supporters said it was all about giving parents choices about where to send their children.

"The sky is not falling," said Rep. Mary Czaja, R-Irma. "The sun will come up tomorrow morning. This is just one more option for parents."

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. The plan would also apply to other districts with more than 15,000 students that meet certain criteria, including having the lowest rating on school report cards two years in a row.


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