Thursday, June 15, 2023

K-12 voucher deal makes an already-large giveaway even more massive

A few recent developments have piled up as the state budget and other bills go through the Capitol this month. One I wanted to catch up on relates to a major boost in K-12 funding, particularly for the state’s already-huge voucher program that helps pay for students to attend private schools.
As part of a sweeping agreement between Republican leaders and Evers to boost state and local funding for municipalities, public, charter and private voucher schools will receive a boost in state dollars as well.

Some Assembly Republicans, including Speaker Robin Vos, have touted the agreement as an "expansion" of the private voucher school programs in Wisconsin. It does not expand the programs, however — enrollment in the programs stays the same — but it does increase the amount of money each voucher is worth, which could allow private schools to expand the number of non-voucher seats the school may accommodate.

One provision being considered will increase the amount of the taxpayer-funded voucher private schools receive per student. Under the bill, payments would increase from $8,399 to $9,500 per K-8 student and from $9,045 to $12,000 per high school student. Payments for students in the voucher program for students with disabilities would increase to $14,677 per student from $13,076. Charter schools would increase from $9,264 to $11,000 per student under the deal.
I was struck by the paragraphs that followed this information in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s story on the voucher bill, where a private school president accidentally exposes the BS inside the pro-voucher argument of “it’s cheaper to teach students with vouchers”
John Hoch, president of St. Thomas More High School in Milwaukee, told lawmakers Monday in a public hearing on the bill that educating one student "costs far more" than the current $9,045 amount and requires additional fundraising efforts.

Increasing vouchers could let some schools add seats or increase pay, Hoch said, but "for others, it could mean the difference between keeping their doors open or having to end operations entirely. The situation is that dire."
Huh, why doesn’t Robbin’ Vos, Devin LeMahieu not feel the same way about public schools in communities that have these issues, with less state aid per student and no tuition to back them up? (easy answer – no Betsy DeVos or Bradley Foundation donations in that).

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau gave a breakdown of the voucher bill, and it’s even more a bonus payment that you may think. That’s because the LFB says that voucher schools will also benefit from the increase in revenue limits that public schools are slated to get in the state budget.

Then all of these figures rise again for 2024-25. Cool deal if you're on the receiving end of this subsidy.

The voucher increases also mean that public schools will lose more state aids. That's because a sizable portion of these vouchers are “funded” by taking money away from the public K-12 school district the voucher student lives in, even if the kid never took a day of classes in the public schools.

And that taking of funds has increased throughout the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, blunting any (still below-inflation level) state aid increases that those districts may have received in recent years.

I freely admit that I might be slightly off on the exact numbers because the LFB is mixing and matching a lot of variables, but you can see the point.

The taking of state aids from publicm schools have also led to property tax increases on residents of the districts where voucher students live. After all, losing 1 or even 10 students in a school isn’t going to cause that school to close, and it won’t cause a change in the overhead costs of operating it. So the funds have to be made up somehow.

I can see why Vos and the WisGOPs are sending this in a standalone bill, because if the voucher increase was part of the budget, Evers likely could have vetoed some/all of the per-student increases out (since the move would save taxpayer dollars), and the Legislature likely wouldn’t be able to override it. Instead, if Evers vetoes this voucher bill, then WisGOPs can hold up the budget in the gerrymandered Legislature, with public schools and everyone else getting no increases at all.

In reaction to this, State Rep. Darrin Madison (D/Socialist-Milwaukee) had an amazing statement on the voucher school bill, explaining why it makes an already uneven playing field even more slanted against low-income Milwaukeeans.

Unfortunately, AB 305 and K-12 education has now been brought into the equation at the expense of our public education system. One of my predecessors, Annette Polly Williams, was the author of the first school choice legislation in the nation. I must acknowledge the history and positive intent of school choice driven by the historical disparities between Black and brown students in public education. It is important to note that in a public school system that relies on local taxes for funding, these disparities are directly related to the history of redlining and white flight in the most segregated city in America. The Speaker even referenced Polly’s vision today on the floor, even though she had to distance herself from the school choice movement in the 2010s because what was supposed to be an experiment and opportunity for low-income students of color from Milwaukee turned into a strategic divestment from our public school system.

I understand the intent behind the decisions that parents and families are currently making in order to send their young people to the best schools for their child. However, we also have to address the harm that school choice can cause children, including special education students or students with identities that are not respected in their school. Additionally, choice schools have access to private funding sources and do not need this historic investment of public funds. Most importantly, choice schools should not be the solution to discriminatory practices such as redlining or school segregation, nor were they ever intended to be a solution for students who suffer from the recurring divestment of public education that we have seen under this Republican-led legislature. Though we have a long way to go, the only way to ensure accountability of public funding and educational outcomes is to truly invest in our public schools so that every child, no matter their identity, background, or zip code, can get the quality education that they deserve.”

And Republicans have zero interest in dealing with the societal inequities that Rep. Madison is referencing, and now are imposing more controls and demands on how the City spends its funds through the shared revenue bill.

I know sometimes you have to make deals to get bigger budget packages done, and I take small solace in the fact that the limits on voucher enrollment aren’t expanded further. The $325/$650 increase in revenue limits is needed for public schools, who have been choked by absurdly low limits under WisGOPs for years, although there is still catch-up to do.

But it feels like Evers may have given up too much on the voucher side as part of that deal. The hope I have is that he’s thinking that Dems can win with fair maps in 2024 and this and other inequities can be corrected in the next budget. And maybe the WisGOPs sense it to, which could make Robbin’ Vos want to bank this big increase in voucher payments before he quits to cash in loses power as Speaker.

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