Voucher schools are getting more funding than ever. What does that mean for Wisconsin public schools?

FILE - A man walks by the Wisconsin state Capitol, Oct. 10, 2012, in Madison, Wis. The Republican-authored Wisconsin state budget includes a $3.5 billion income tax cut covering all income levels, a cut to the University of Wisconsin System and more money for public K-12 and private voucher schools. The GOP-controlled Legislature is expected to pass the plan next week, June 26, 2023, sending it to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer, File)

By Isabel Soisson

April 25, 2024

A massive funding increase for Wisconsin’s voucher schools in 2023 has led to a growth in private schools getting taxpayer dollars—with a total price tag now exceeding $700 million, according to the Wisconsin Public Education Network, citing figures from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

According to the Department of Public Instruction, there are now 394 private schools participating in the Wisconsin, Milwaukee, or Racine Parental Choice Program, up from 339 last school year.

This is likely due to the fact that the state’s current budget included the largest financial expansion to private school vouchers in the program’s history—funding for elementary and junior high private voucher schools increased from about $8,400 per student to $9,500 per student. Plus, funding for private voucher high schools in the state went up from about $9,045 to $12,000 per student.

Things aren’t slowing down, either. More than half of the private schools in Wisconsin now participate in the voucher program, according to School Choice Wisconsin. In the fall, 22 private schools, as well as Madison Catholic Schools, will join a voucher program for the first time.

Supporters of school vouchers argue it gives parents more choice in where their children go to school, but public school advocates argue that the system drains resources from Wisconsin’s already struggling public schools and uses taxpayer dollars to fund private school tuition for wealthy families at the expense of public school students and educators.

And despite 30 years of advocacy and taxpayer investment, voucher schools have no consistent track record of being any better for students when it comes to educational outcomes.

As private schools gain more public dollars amid ongoing conservative criticism of public education, a new Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction report released earlier this month found that the state’s educators are continuing to leave the workforce at an alarming rate, likely due in part to the fact that teacher compensation has actually decreased by about 20% over the past 12 years, when measured in 2022 dollars.

How vouchers harm public schools

Wisconsin’s public schools are funded through a combination of local property taxes and state support, which is calculated based on property value in the district, enrollment, and district spending.

When Wisconsin parents choose to take their children out of public school and use vouchers to send them to private schools, it means that public schools get less money—even though that school’s expenses stay the same. For example, a gallon of gas for the school bus doesn’t cost less if there are 19 students on the bus instead of 20.

Opponents of school choice also argue that while private voucher schools use public tax dollars, they aren’t held to the same standardized testing or public meetings standards, for example.

“Parents can and should send their kids to whatever school they wish,” Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network told Wisconsin Public Radio earlier this year. “But the fact of the matter is, Wisconsin is choosing right now to dramatically underfund our public schools, even as they choose to invest increasingly, in privatization schemes that play by their own set of rules.”

“Ending these unaccountable programs puts us on a path to fairness all of our kids deserve,” she added on UpNorthNews Radio last year.

Using figures provided by the state Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin Public Education Network said that in the current school year alone, voucher schools are costing taxpayers $573.6 million. When non-school district (independent) charter schools are included, the total price tag reaches $701 million.

Additional research has also found that charter schools often lack the regulation necessary to ensure they’re properly educating their students. This lack of oversight has led to fraud and mismanagement, with multiple charter schools in Wisconsin having to close due to either financial troubles or poor academic performance.

Research has also shown that school choice policies often limit options for students with disabilities, as well. A report by the National Council on Disability found that students with disabilities tend to be excluded from charter schools and voucher programs, because these schools claim they don’t have the resources to accommodate them. This in turn leaves these students without the resources they need to be successful in school.

The future of voucher schools in Wisconsin

Several Wisconsin residents attempted to have the state Supreme Court weigh in on the constitutionality of school vouchers last year.

The lawsuit asked the court to stop three state officials—Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly, and Secretary of the Department of Administration Kathy Blumenfeld—from continuing the programs.

The lawsuit additionally argued that Wisconsin’s revenue limit and funding mechanism for voucher school programs and charter schools violated the state’s constitution since it states that public dollars should only be used for public purposes. The lawsuit also contended that vouchers defund public schools, don’t allow for adequate oversight, and aren’t held to the same standards as public schools.

In December, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to hear the case directly, although it could still be taken up by the justices after it has worked its way through the circuit and appeals courts.

Author

  • Isabel Soisson

    Isabel Soisson is a multimedia journalist who has worked at WPMT FOX43 TV in Harrisburg, along with serving various roles at CNBC, NBC News, Philadelphia Magazine, and Philadelphia Style Magazine.

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