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Wisconsin Supreme Court weighs fast-tracking a lawsuit to end private school vouchers

Wisconsin Supreme Court weighs fast-tracking a lawsuit to end private school vouchers

By Pat Kreitlow

November 14, 2023

Education advocates say the voucher programs have become a massive drain on public schools and want the state’s highest court to take up the case immediately.

As the Wisconsin Supreme Court considers a request to immediately take up a lawsuit that would eliminate the state’s taxpayer-funded voucher schools program, voucher supporters filed briefs Tuesday making the case for justices to let the lawsuit more slowly work its way through county and appellate courts or reject the lawsuit entirely.

The lawsuit was brought by several Wisconsin residents and is being funded by the Minocqua Brewing Co. SuperPAC. They argue the state’s revenue limit and funding mechanism for voucher school programs and charter schools violate the Wisconsin Constitution’s declaration that public funds be spent for public purposes. Their lawsuit also contends that vouchers defund public schools, do not allow for adequate public oversight and do not hold private schools to the same standards as public schools.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that Milwaukee’s voucher program was legal. But the current lawsuit alleges much has changed since the voucher program was small and experimental—that it has expanded to become a massive drain on public school resources. More than 52,000 students are enrolled in the programs at a cost of $444 million in the last school year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Those who favor taxpayer support of private schools and independent charter school programs said a successful lawsuit would create chaos for tens of thousands of families with students currently enrolled. They contend the effort to undo it is politically motivated, after the Supreme Court’s majority shifted to liberal control earlier this year.

“A mere change in membership should not create an opportunity to challenge precedent,” supporters of school choice programs, being represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, contend. “A single election is not a mandate to radically change the law.”

The lawsuit was filed two months after the state Supreme Court flipped to 4-3 liberal controlled. With that change, Democrats hope the court will rule in their favor in pending cases seeking to overturn Republican-drawn legislative electoral maps and undo the state’s ban on abortion.

Democrats including Gov. Tony Evers, who previously served as state superintendent of education, have been longtime critics of the program. But Evers this summer agreed to increase spending on the programs as part of a larger education funding package that was also tied to a deal sending more money to Milwaukee and local governments.

The first question for the Wisconsin Supreme Court to decide is whether to take the case directly or first have it work its way through lower courts. The plaintiffs want the high court to take it directly, which would mean a ruling could come in months rather than perhaps years if it had to go through the lower courts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Author

  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.

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