Wisconsin lawmakers approve statewide vouchers

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Late change might allow more students to participate

MADISON, Wis. – Until this week, it appeared that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was only going to be able to push through a very limited expansion of the state’s private school voucher program.

Dancing-VoucherBut now it appears there may have been a last-minute loophole created that could allow many more students into the program than the original plan allowed.

In any case, Wisconsin’s voucher program, which dates back to 1990 and is currently limited to Milwaukee and Racine, will apparently expand statewide.

The expansion proposal was part of the state’s biannual budget, which was approved by the Senate last night by a razor-thin 17-16 vote, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. All but one Republican senator voted for the budget while all Democrats opposed it.

The state Assembly approved the budget Wednesday, and it will now go to Walker for his signature.

Walker originally hoped to expand the voucher program to any school district in the state with at least 4,000 students and at least two failing schools. That would have automatically added nine districts to the program.

But state lawmakers, including many Republicans, opposed the plan, and forced Walker into a compromise. They agreed to allow private school vouchers anywhere in the state, but limited the number of students participating outside of Milwaukee and Racine to 500 next year and 1,000 the following year.

The compromise angered many conservatives, who thought too many students would be left without opportunities to secure better educations in private schools.

But apparently an amendment was added to the budget earlier this week that would allow any existing private schools that accept vouchers in Milwaukee or Racine to open satellite schools around the state, the news report said. Students enrolling in those schools would be considered Milwaukee or Racine students, and would not count against the 500 or 1,000-student cap.

Some officials said Thursday that State Superintendent Tony Evers, a passionate voucher opponent, would have the power to determine if the students at any new satellite schools would count against the cap.

Evers said he wasn’t so sure about that, and was worried about the amendment, according to the news report.

“That would essentially negate any kind of caps,” Evers told the Journal Sentinel.

One cap, which prevents more than 1 percent of students from any districts outside of Milwaukee and Racine from using state vouchers, would remain in place.

WSJ says Republicans abandoned school choice principles

While news of the possible loophole was circulating around the state, conservatives remained angry about the original compromise that limited the number of students in the voucher program.

Some of the anger came from the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which blamed Senate Republicans for failing to support Walker in his push for expanded school choice.

“School choice ought to be a winner for Republicans who want to appeal to minorities and speak about upward mobility, but too many suburban Republicans are still afraid to challenge the teachers unions,” the WSJ wrote in an editorial published last week. “That includes in Wisconsin, where reform Governor Scott Walker has been forced by his own party to accept only token statewide expansion of a voucher program.

“The deal this week between Mr. Walker and legislative leaders would expand Milwaukee and Racine’s voucher program statewide but cap the number of children who can participate outside the two cities … to 500 in the first year and 1,000 thereafter. Wisconsin has 870,000 students in public schools, and 25,000 already get vouchers in Milwaukee and Racine. Mr. Walker says he won on the principle of statewide expansion and can fight to lift the cap in the future.

“The shame is that the demonstrable success in those two cities hasn’t already convinced legislators. Voucher students in the two cities are more likely to graduate and more likely to go to college than those in traditional public schools. Republicans have only an 18-15 edge in the state Senate, and the defection of key senators, including President Mike Ellis of Neenah, forced Mr. Walker to bend.

“The teachers unions will support Wisconsin Democrats in 2014 no matter what Republicans do, but now the unions will do so knowing that they can scare Republicans enough to cause them to shrink back to being the party of the education status quo.”

We agree completely with the WSJ. The best possible course of action would be to open up school choice without limit in Wisconsin, and allow parents and students to choose the schools that best serve their individual needs.

Yet we don’t view the compromise in such a harsh light. From our perspective, it accomplished the important goal of spreading the program throughout the state, so there will be no more geographic barriers for vouchers.

The rest of the story will be written by the people.

If enough parents and students demand access to the program, state officials will be forced to increase the number of participants in a few years. There aren’t too many politicians out there – Democrat or Republican – who are willing to give a flat “no” to high-pitched public demand.

And if, on the other hand, there is a general lack of interest, the program will still be available for the few who want it.

Our guess is that vouchers will prove to be pretty popular, particularly in more urban areas with established private schools. And that popularity will force a lot of mediocre or poor public schools to improve their programs or risk losing most of their students.

It could prove to be a win-win for everyone.

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