Republicans, Democrats Team Up to Improve School Choice Legislation with Senate Bill 234

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Senate Bill 234, a bill that helps families and schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, passed through the Senate Education Committee Wednesday on a 6-1 vote. This vote included Republican and Democrat senators working together on one of the most divisive issues in Wisconsin public education.

SB 234 is a catchall bill that will create laws that allow the choice program to operate more smoothly. It allows for parents to use alternative methods to prove their income levels besides Department of Revenue verification, enacts a “once-in, always-in” clause for students in the city that ensures that families don’t have to worry about losing their voucher if a parent takes a better paying job, and allows schools to sell uniforms and apply other fees necessary for running a school.

The seven-person Senate Education Committee joined forces to cast a nearly unanimous vote. Only Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) voted against these changes.

The provisions of SB 234 are as follows:

  • It allows schools in Milwaukee and Racine choice programs to charge fees for services beyond tuition – i.e. uniforms, field trips, etc.
  • Enacts the “once-in, always-in” clause that had been pushed back to 2012 by DPI, allowing students and families security in their schooling choices.
  • Allows families additional methods of income verification to qualify for school vouchers.
  • Prevents staff members who have been kicked out of MPCP schools from working in or opening their own MPCP or PPSCP (Racine) school for seven years.
  • Requires schools that were exempted from accreditation through PAVE to earn approved accreditation by 2015.
  • Limits the entities that have the ability to pre-accredit MPCP or PPSCP schools.
  • Relaxes current rules over the occupancy permits issued to participating schools.

The existing problems that this bill will tackle were addressed throughout testimonies Wednesday afternoon.

Brother Bob Smith, president of Messmer Schools, testified to the hardships that institutions are going through this year after the ability to invoke fees for services applied throughout the MPCP schools was eliminated. Issues like the elimination of charging modest fees ($5 for a polo shirt) for uniforms, putting deposits down for school-issued laptops, charging students for replacement of damaged school books, and bus transportation costs put the schools in a financial hole that the modest voucher value cannot cover.

Amongst the three Messmer campuses, Smith mused, busing costs alone from the changes had cost the schools $11,000 in September and August.

These provisions will ease the bureaucratic burdens on both families and schools without affecting the quality of education that students receive. This will free up administrative time across Milwaukee and Racine and help staff members focus on their classrooms rather than paperwork. Families will benefit from this streamlined oversight as well.

The passage of the bill was a bright spot for school choice in the Wisconsin at a time where expansion of the program is being stricken. With the voucher program now limited to Milwaukee and Racine, the opportunity to focus on fixing the problems with the current system is arriving. Easing the burdens that 2011’s expansion brought to the table is a good start, but there is still work to be done. When that happens, schools, families, and most importantly students, will benefit.