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What are you curious about when it comes to education in the Milwaukee area?

Voucher, charter schools receive major state funding boost, while school districts likely to get less

A mural at Gold Meir High School in Milwaukee.
Emily Files
A mural at Gold Meir High School in Milwaukee.

Last week, Wisconsin schools learned how much state funding they could receive in the next two years.

As part of the shared revenue deal, Gov. Tony Evers signed a Republican-authored bill that provides major increases for private voucher and independent charter schools.

Separately, the Joint Finance Committee drafted a public school funding plan that includes more modest increases. That plan still needs to advance to the final state budget.

Increases for voucher and charter schools

The past two years have been financially difficult for Wisconsin schools.

Republicans in the state Legislature refused to boost per-pupil spending limits two years ago, which meant schools in all sectors were stuck with flat state funding during a time of record inflation.

Now, some schools are in for a major increase.

"This is a really monumental and historic effort that’s going to improve the quality of education for kids in private voucher schools and public charter schools," says Anthony McHenry, CEO of Milwaukee Academy of Science, a K-12 charter school that serves mostly Black, low-income students.

McHenry says the school hasn’t been able to afford things like a school nurse and one-to-one laptops for students.

The legislation just signed into law by Gov. Evers could help fix that. It provides $2,000 more for each charter school student. That means a $2 million influx for Milwaukee Academy of Science.

"From my perspective, it's a step in the right direction," McHenry says. "Almost half of the kids in Milwaukee are not attending the traditional public school district, and those kids deserve the financial resources that kids at a larger district get."

Private schools that enroll students using taxpayer-funded vouchers are also getting an increase of between $1,000-$3,000 per student, depending on their grade.

Jim Piatt, President of Messmer Catholic Schools in Milwaukee, hopes to use some of the money to raise teacher salaries, so they don’t keep leaving for better pay in suburban districts.

"Last summer we were losing teachers to salary gaps that were well in excess of $10,000," Piatt says. "You know, five-figure gaps."

Public schools "disappointed"

School district leaders are not thrilled about the Joint Finance Committee's education funding plan, which isn't final yet.

"My reaction is that it’s really disappointing," says Lisa Elliot, superintendent of Greenfield School District.

Because public schools didn’t get a per-pupil spending increase in that last state budget, they were advocating for an increase of $1,500 per student, to keep up with inflation.

What they would get in the Joint Finance Committee plan is less than half of that: A $650 per-pupil increase.

"How do schools maintain class sizes, how do we pay our teachers, how do you preserve programs, when new funding is consistently less than the rate of inflation?" says Kettle Moraine business manager John Stellmacher.

Kettle Moraine and Greenfield have both gone to referendum recently, asking voters to raise property taxes outside of state-imposed limits. They may need to continue doing that if their communities don’t want to see cuts to their schools.

There is another provision that will help some school districts. As part of the bill to increase voucher and charter payments, school districts with low property tax limits, also known as revenue limits, will get to increase their spending. The legislation lifts the minimum revenue limit from $10,000 to $11,000.

Elliot says that will help Greenfield, boosting its revenue limit from $10,870 to $11,000. But it still doesn't allow the district to keep pace with rising costs due to inflation.

And districts that are already above the low revenue limit ceiling, including Kettle Moraine and Milwaukee Public Schools, won't benefit from that provision at all.

Is this an expansion of school choice?

With private voucher and charter schools set to receive a historic funding boost, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has touted it as an expansion of school choice. So, will the funding allow choice and charter schools to expand and enroll more students?

Anthony McHenry, CEO of Milwaukee Academy of Science, says for every child at his school, there's another on its waitlist. But they're at capacity at their current location.

"We're going through the process to look at if we should expand at a second site," McHenry says. "This legislation certainly makes it more feasible ... but no final decisions have been made as of yet."

Jim Piatt, at Messmer Catholic Schools, says he'd like to enroll more high school students, but first, he needs more teachers.

"All schools, choice, charter and public are significantly challenged by the current teacher shortage," Piatt says. "We all need great teachers, and we need more of them."


Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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