Maple Grove School in Marathon County, Jan. 20, 2020 (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)
Maple Grove School in Marathon County, Jan. 20, 2020 (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)

Pence WI visit promotes choice but voucher schools draining local resources

When Vice President Mike Pence travels to the Badger State to celebrate School Choice Week and the 30th anniversary of the country’s oldest parental choice program in Milwaukee, public school backers will be asking taxpayers if they’re happy with the choice to continue funding two separate school systems.

Pence, a longtime school choice supporter,  is expected to speak in the Capitol Rotunda around 12:15 p.m Tuesday. His presence at the event comes as options to the traditional public school system continue to rise and now include open enrollment from one public school to another, charter schools and an expanded private voucher school system in Wisconsin.

As the schooling options increase, many public school districts across the state are feeling the financial strain. The biggest challenge, say many, is how to fund both public and private schools –where tuition was traditionally paid for by the parents and not with tax vouchers– with the same amount of taxpayer dollars.

The ongoing expansion of state-funded vouchers to private schools by Republican lawmakers is a common target. Carol Shires, the director of operations with School Choice Wisconsin, said 42,000 students are now enrolled in the voucher program at 350 schools across the state. 

“Vice President Pence is coming here to rally for private schools. I want to be clear that I have nothing against private schools,”  said Jill Underly, the superintendent of the Pecatonica School District, a rural district in southwest Wisconsin. “What I am against is the fact we now have two parallel school systems operating in Wisconsin. We have the public school system and then we have the private, voucher school program that is also funded with public education dollars.”

In Eau Claire, the county board rejected a resolution calling this “School Choice Week” after hearing from public school advocates upset about the ongoing shift in state support.

There is also unhappiness with the open enrollment rules that make it easier for students to transfer out of their community schools. 

The Palmyra-Eagle Area School District’s well-publicized struggles — and failed attempt to dissolve — are virtually unaffected by voucher schools, said District Administrator Steve Bloom. School choice only removes $38,000 from the district’s budget, he said.

“Roughly $38,000 in a $13 million budget is nothing,” Bloom said. 

He said the district’s woes have, instead, been caused by two primary issues: a decline in area residents and the state’s open enrollment program, which this year took $3 million in funds away from the district.

Underly is grappling with the same issues in the  Pecatonica School District. The rural district operates two schools with 400 students.

Like the Palmyra-Eagle School District, the Pecatonica School District also is stuck in a cycle of requesting referendums to cover the money lost due to declining enrollment. Underly said districts near more populated school districts with state-of-the-art facilities and preschool programs lose kids to open enrollment.

In 2017, voters approved a $325,000 referendum, with $100,000 used for deferred maintenance projects, including a new roof for the high school. This November, voters will be presented with another referendum, Underly said. It again will be to cover operational costs. The exact amount has yet to be determined, she said. 

“The pieces in the pie that are solely for public schools are getting smaller,” Underly said. “Voucher programs get to cut their own pieces. The public schools are left to share what is left.”

Even Wisconsin’s smallest, most remote schools feel the effects far away from Madison politicians or the Milwaukee area where the private voucher school program began. 

Maple Grove School sits on a hill in the Marathon County community of Hamburg. It is 115 years old and beloved for the way kids supplement their lessons by collecting eggs from the chicken coop and tapping the maple trees every spring. 

But the future of Maple Grove School will not be decided by the quality of its education but the money it can raise inside the limited boundaries of the Merrill school district.

When the Merrill school board started talking about closing Maple Grove, area families fought back. They are suspicious of claims the school district would save $550,000 over the next two years, in part because the savings could be wiped out if enough parents use the Open Enrollment program to leave the Merrill district entirely. 

“Our families are not unsympathetic to Merrill’s fiscal pressure,” said Dr. Dawn Nonn, the principal of Maple Grove. “There’s not necessarily a guarantee that closing us is going to fix anything. It might be a band-aid but has it really changed that piece of declining enrollment?” 

A separate, taxpayer-funded, private school voucher program also draws criticism for its reduced oversight compared to public schools.

“It’s going to impact the system overall because you don’t have the accountability features, the fiscal responsibility, the qualified staff,” said Nonn, “so you can’t say the quality of education is comparable to the public sector.”

“At what point do we really make the commitment to public education and where we look at that voucher system and really decide if it’s meeting the goals that we were presented? It’s time to start evaluating whether it’s fiscally responsible as a state to continue funding this.”

Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, plans to use Pence’s presence at the Capitol to introduce the Public Education Reinvestment Act tomorrow following the Vice President’s speech. The bill phases out “the failed voucher experiment and reinvests that money back into the public school,” Brostoff said. 

It also lowers class sizes to 18 students per instructor.  

“If these voucher schools are doing so well and being successful on their own merits, they should not have to rely on public subsidies,” Brostoff said.

Siena Catholic Schools of Racine is the largest beneficiary of state voucher funding within the Racine Unified School District. About 79 percent of the Catholic school 1,583 students attend through the voucher program, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. Choice vouchers cost an estimated $29.2 million in the district, according to DPI estimates. (Photos by Jonathon Sadowski)

As for the criticism levied against the package of school choice programs, Shires said the goal of the School Choice Wisconsin is to empower parents.

“We would say let the parents choose,” Shires said. 

The state capitol rally for School Choice Week will be held from noon to 1 p.m. It is hosted by School Choice Wisconsin, Hispanics for School Choice, No Better Friend Corp., Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, Wisconsin Federation for Children and Americans for Prosperity Foundation.