Joint Finance Passes Omnibus Education Reform Package, Modest Voucher Expansion

June 5, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

After more than two decades of vouchers, Wisconsin is finally getting a statewide school choice program. However, it will be limited to just 1,000 students – or one-tenth of one percent of the state’s public school students.

The Joint Finance Committee worked late into Wednesday morning to create an omnibus package that rolled months of educational reform into a single motion. This package, which includes a capped statewide voucher expansion, an increase in voucher amounts for participating students, and a $150/$150 increase in per-student funding for public schools over the next two years was passed on a 12-4 party line vote at 4:40 AM.

The plan had several differences from the education package that Governor Scott Walker had laid out in his 2013-2015 budget proposal. Rather than tying voucher expansion to districts that had low-performing schools on state report cards, Wisconsin will instead turn to a statewide program for families that have an annual income of less than 185% percent of the Federal Poverty Level. In 2013, that would be under $43,567 for a family of four.

However, participation limits will make this program smaller than the proposed plan, which would have likely started in nine additional Wisconsin districts and likely grown from there. There will only be 500 vouchers available for students outside of Milwaukee and Racine in 2013-2014 and 1,000 in the following year. No further expansion was written into the motion. Additionally, districts are limited to losing no more than one percent of their total student population to these new vouchers.

That’s a contrast to the state’s existing choice programs. Voucher participation in Milwaukee and Racine is open to families that earn up to 300% of the poverty line. There is no participation cap in those cities in 2013-2014. The statewide 1,000-student cap would represent approximately 4.1% of the state’s current voucher population.

This voucher expansion will also come with an increase in funding, a move that should help schools that were struggling to operate with spending levels that lagged far behind the state’s traditional public school figures. These schools will see an increase from their per-pupil funding of $6,442 in 2014-2015. Voucher schools that serve students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade will be paid $7,210 per student. In high schools, this figure will rise to $7,856. In future years, these vouchers will also have funding increases tied to increases in public schools in Wisconsin.

New legislation will also require these voucher schools to continuously maintain accreditation and demonstrate these credentials with the Department of Public Instruction on a regular basis. Any school failing to meet these standards will be barred from participating in Wisconsin’s voucher programs.

A 12-year phase-out of a 38.4% aid reduction in Milwaukee will help address the program’s funding flaw and help the district realize the savings that the rest of the state has seen in over 20 years as well.

Additionally, JFC members voted in a new form of school choice for Wisconsin. Parents will be able to take advantage of an income tax deduction for families that send their children to private schools. This would include a deduction of expenses totaling up to $4,000 per student for pupils enrolled in grades K-8 and $10,000 per student for high schoolers. This program is estimated to create $30,000,000 in deductions in 2014-2015.

The omnibus motion also included additional funding for Wisconsin’s public schools. JFC members introduced a $75/$75 increase in categorical aids for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years. The legislation would also allow for a $75/$75 adjustment under local revenue limits, allowing for a $150/$150 funding increase for students across the Badger State.

Plans to fully adopt the Educator Effectiveness program, which was established in 2011 and designed for implementation based on a combination of student progress and administrator evaluation, passed through JFC without any modification.

However, additions weren’t the only features of the omnibus motion introduced Wednesday morning. Several pieces of the Governor’s proposal were left on the cutting room floor in the JFC package. A School Performance Incentive Grant program, which would have provided additional funding for high and low performing K-12 institutions based on the state report cards, was not part of the latest motion. The new plan also eliminates a Walker proposal to create a scholarship program for special needs students. This voucher plan, which has roots in Florida’s McKay Scholarships, will not be included in the upcoming budget.

The state’s charter schools were hit hard by compromises in the omnibus package. Independent 2R charters would be guaranteed more funding, but Governor Walker’s plan to create a statewide charter oversight board, which would help independent charters grow outside of Milwaukee and Racine, was scrapped. Instead, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which already authorizes charter schools in its home city, will have the authority to open up these independent institutions throughout Milwaukee County. These charters will also see their per-student funding increase from $7,775 to $8,075 by 2014-2015.

The response to the proposed legislation was mixed. A crowd of approximately 50 attendees made their stance clear by wearing anti-voucher stickers and t-shirts at the State Capitol at the scheduled 10 AM starting time. However, their numbers dwindled as the JFC meeting time got pushed back later and later after a heated Badgercare debate earlier in the day. While a dedicated group remained and sung songs long into the night, a once-capacity crowd had thinned out considerably by the time the education motion was heard at 1:30 a.m.

Democrat members of the JFC laid out four motions related to education that would increase funding to public schools, special needs education, and disadvantaged students. All four were voted down on party lines 4-12.

The JFC hearing represented a major shift in education reform in Wisconsin. Measures were taken to direct additional funding to both voucher and traditional public schools, but items like statewide charter school oversight, performance based grants, and special needs scholarships were left behind. However, what has been described as a “super-sized” and “dramatic” increase of the state’s voucher program will only increase the state’s voucher population by four percent – while affecting fewer than one percent of students in a given district. That’s limited growth that will lag behind the original 2013-2015 budget proposal.