Scott Walker’s Unprecedented Voucher Expansion

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks in Concord, New Hampshire, on March 14, 2015.Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks in Concord, New Hampshire, on March 14, 2015. (Photo: Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com)

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At a time when other states are reinvesting in public education, Wisconsin continues to slash and burn. The Wisconsin Budget Project says that the state is now spending $1,014 less per public school student than it did in 2008 and more funds are slated to be siphoned off as Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposes an unprecedented voucher expansion, draining funds from public education and directing them to for-profit and religious schools.

In crafting the budget, Walker is taking his cues from the American Federation for Children (AFC), a major force for school privatization nationwide. It is funded and chaired by billionaire Betsy DeVos, and pushes its privatization agenda in the states with high-dollar lobbying and attack ads.

It also pushes “model bills” through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Disgraced former Wisconsin lawmaker and longtime Scott Walker friend and ally Scott Jensen is a “senior advisor” to AFC and often represents the group at ALEC meetings. Backing this agenda is the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, which has spent $31 million since 2001 on groups and individuals pushing for school vouchers and school privatization.

Dramatic Cuts to K-12 Education

Governor Scott Walker’s 2011-2013 budget slashed funding for K-12 education by $792 million—the biggest cut to education in Wisconsin’s history. That Walker budget also removed the enrollment cap on the Milwaukee school voucher (or “parental choice”) program, which allows K-12 students to attend private and religious schools on taxpayer money, much of which is taken from the public school district. The program currently enrolls 26,000 students at an annual cost to the state of $191 million (an average of $7,300 per child) funneled to private and for-profit schools each year, taking $61 million of that directly from the already struggling Milwaukee Public Schools. Walker has also launched new voucher programs for Racine and statewide that now enroll about 3,000 students and cost another $20 million a year.

Early data from the statewide program indicates that Wisconsin is subsidizing many families who were already paying to send their kids to private schools. According to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), nearly eighty percent of students participating in a recent statewide expansion of the voucher program were not previously in public schools and nearly seventy five percent were already attending a private school.

In his 2015-2017 budget Walker proposed another $127 million in public K-12 education cuts, cuts that the legislature has already deemed unacceptable. And Walker projected another $140 million more in education cuts to the next biennial budget two years from now.

“This budget sets Wisconsin on the path to delivering a legacy of less for hundreds of thousands of public school kids,” says Tony Evers, head of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

Redirecting Tax Dollars to Underperforming Private Schools

In his 2013-2015 budget, Walker upped the income ceiling for the Milwaukee school voucher program to 300 percent of the federal poverty line. A married couple with two children can receive a public voucher for private schools if they earn $78,637, which is far more than the median U.S. household income of $52,250. When originally introduced in 1990, Wisconsin’s school vouchers were pitched as social mobility tickets for minority students, and the program was championed by some African-American lawmakers, notably Annette “Polly” Williams. But Walker’s dramatic expansion, which opened the program to a broad swath of middle class parents, drew fire. “They have hijacked the program,” Polly Williams told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2013.

Despite the fact that voucher students perform worse than public school students in reading and math when compared to socioeconomically similar cohorts in public schools, Walker announced plans to lift the cap entirely on the statewide school voucher program in 2015. Instead of immediately eliminating the cap, however, the legislature has proposed gradually removing it over the next ten years. Even so, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates voucher expansion will cost the state $600-800 million over that period.

In addition, Wisconsin is bleeding a similar amount to independent charter schools, with some $68 million per year now going to just 23 independent charters, mostly located in Milwaukee.The legislature has given the green light to dramatic expansion of independent charters by allowing the University of Wisconsin System and some county executives, including conservative Republican Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow, to authorize new charters.

Gutting Teacher Credentials

Walker’s 2015-2017 budget bill created an “alternative teacher licensure” in which anyone with a BA and “relevant knowledge” could apply to teach middle and high school. The GOP-led budget committee further eroded the requirements, allowing anyone with a high school diploma (possibly even high school drop-outs) and a few weeks’ experience in a trade or industry to apply for a license to teach science, technology, engineering and math. If Walker does not wield his veto, Wisconsin will be the first state to license teachers without college degrees, EdWeek reports.

If signed into law, the new rules would require the state to issue a teaching license to anyone that a school board decides has relevant subject matter experience.

“This is taking us back to the 18th century,” said John Mathews of Madison Teachers, Inc. “That’s when we learned that teachers needed real skills and started requiring the two year license. It wasn’t much later that the state realized that that wasn’t enough. You not only had to know history, you had to know how to teach it. Today, we have methods classes in college so instructors can master both subject matter and methodology.”

Little Accountability for Vouchers

A report by the Wisconsin State Journal recently calculated that state taxpayers had lost $139 million to failed voucher schools. That’s a lot of money, yet Walker has not pushed strong measures to hold the program accountable for educating kids. Quite the contrary. As CMD revealed back in March, Walker not only turned a deaf ear to DPI’s request for greater transparency and accountability, and an end to for-profit schools participating in the voucher program, a Walker official actually instructed the non-partisan drafting bureau to hide the proposed voucher expansion from DPI.

The budget moves away from a model of democratically elected school boards, and accountable community schools to for-profit corporate schools that operate under significantly different rules. If you want to know the basics, for instance, your voucher school’s graduation, drop out and expulsion rates, good luck. These schools can, and do, ignore Wisconsin’s open records and meeting laws and have fewer reporting requirements.

In a search for more information, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) this year to take a close look at Milwaukee voucher schools and compare a number of outcomes between the voucher schools and local public schools, including academic achievement, accountability, and special education services.

The U.S. Department of Justice has also been looking into Wisconsin’s voucher program following numerous complaints that schools were not serving children with disabilities. But the Wisconsin legislature is not waiting, moving ahead with an ALEC “special needs” voucher bill. Plus, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) is now reportedly working to derail the inquiry.

While public school teaches and officials watch the changes with dismay, Walker is being cheered on by his friends at American Federation for Children, ALEC and the Bradley Foundation. “[M]ost importantly, Gov. Scott Walker was re-elected,” AFC notes in its 2014 Election Impact Report.

As the head of Wisconsin’s education department puts it, “The budget continues to walk away from our constitutional obligations to educate all students in local public schools.” But it does “fully fund voucher expansion for private school kids and priorities special interests,” said Evers.