Republicans and Democrats Clash on Education Budget

MacIver News Service | June 25, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

[Madison, Wisc…] The Wisconsin State Legislature passed the 2013-2015 budget in the early hours last Friday, and the most contentious part of the debate was the education budget. Items like increased funding for public schools and school choice expansion drew heated debate in the Senate as the budget grew closer to passage but the changes inserted by the Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) two weeks earlier remained largely untouched after being discussed in both houses. While Wisconsin is still in line to see the first-ever statewide voucher expansion in its history, some small tweaks were added to clarify how it will interact with the state’s existing school choice programs in Milwaukee and Racine.

These changes were relatively minor in scope. Legislators clarified how former geographic limits will be dealt with under a statewide school choice system, and mandated how the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) releases information like test data and enrollment numbers for these schools.

Tweaks to the statewide voucher program, which will tentatively begin operation in 2013-2014, will also affect existing voucher schools. Schools that are within Milwaukee and Racine’s city limits that have enrolled voucher students will not be affected. Schools that have enrolled students from these districts but also lie outside of the district lines will be able to continue to receive voucher students without having that apply to the statewide 500/1,000 pupil cap that the program will be subject to in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, respectively.

This will ensure that the new statewide cap won’t negatively affect schools that were adopted into the program when geographic caps were lifted in 2011. Students at these schools won’t be subject to the lottery process that is likely to take place when demand goes beyond the small scope of the choice program’s participation limits.

However, there still will be accommodations in place to ensure that students leaving low-performing public schools for a private classroom won’t be turned down due to space limitations in the statewide choice program. Students that had not previously attended a private school will be given priority in the school of their choice, giving students switching from public schools a greater opportunity to find a new learning environment. Preference will be given to siblings of currently enrolled students as well. Otherwise, the program will conduct a random selection lottery to fill seats after it reaches its 1,000-student cap in 2015.

With school choice expanding, the new budget also includes language to regulate how data from these schools is released to the public. The new legislation calls for all information, including enrollment and standardized test scores, to be released by DPI at the same time. Exceptions will be made only for schools or school districts that request certain data or for specific authorized requests.

State Assembly Democrats had drafted 211 amendments for the budget on Wednesday, but ultimately dropped them in favor of an expedited vote. It’s unclear how many of these amendments would have been related to education. With a strong Republican majority in the Assembly, it is unlikely that any would have passed.

These new laws will help the growth of school choice across Wisconsin while taking the first step towards greater accountability in these institutions. Vouchers will now come to districts across the state, though restrictions and participation caps will limit their effectiveness for the foreseeable future. That means that students in families that qualify for free and reduced price lunch benefits will now have more options than ever before when it comes to choosing the school that fits them the best. However, these students will likely be subject to a lottery process to fill seats in the restrictive 500/1,000 student voucher program in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, respectively.

Another change that will affect these schools is a mandate that will require all student data – ranging from enrollment to test scores – to be released by DPI at the same time. This will replace the steady trickle of data that had come to light throughout the school year in the past. This will help draw more attention to the performance of these schools, and will likely kick off a new news cycle that will revolve around the coverage of this information. When this student data is released, Wisconsinites can expect a crush of media analysis and political statements regarding school choice in the Badger State.

The version of the budget that passed through the Senate and Assembly runs with the changes that came down through JFC, and these small adjustments will help clarify the voucher-led reforms that were a key sticking point in JFC’s omnibus educational package. While items like funding and charter school administration were left relatively untouched, the state’s voucher programs earned the brunt of the minor changes brought in the first chamber and the wrath of Senate Democrats who made their displeasure with the budget clear.

Amendments in the Senate were clearer on what the minority party was looking for from the upcoming budget. A series of changes would have stopped the expansion of the state’s voucher program, invested that funding into traditional public schools, and required state report cards to apply to voucher schools as it currently does in regular public schools and charter schools. These private schools would also have been limited to enrolling no more than 49 percent of their students through vouchers and added licensing and certification measures that would have duplicated the accreditation process that these schools are already subject to.

These amendments were tabled by tight 17-16 votes. Senator Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) broke from the Republicans to vote against tabling in these school choice matters.

The Democrat legislation would have also required any school choice expansion in the future to require a local referendum before being implemented at the local level. These amendments would also have removed a proposed income tax deduction for families that send their children to private schools outside of the state’s voucher programs.

The Senate vote capped a busy week at the Capitol and put the 2013-2015 Wisconsin State Budget on Governor Scott Walker’s desk. It’s unclear what legislation, if any, the governor will veto before signing the bill. For now, key educational reforms like the expansion of school choice, additional funding for public schools, and the expansion of independent charter schools into Milwaukee County, are closer than ever to becoming reality in Wisconsin.