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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Evers To Propose Limits On Voucher & Charter Schools

Emily Files
Students at Wisconsin Lutheran School in Racine, a participant in the Racine Parental Choice Program.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will call for a freeze on school choice programs and independent charter schools when he introduces his biennial budget proposal this week.

Evers isn’t trying to end school choice in Wisconsin. But he does want to hit the brakes. His office provided an outline of his voucher and charter school proposal prior to his budget address, which is scheduled for Thursday.

It includes freezing enrollment in Wisconsin’s voucher programs, beginning in fiscal year 2021, and phasing out the newest of the programs.

“I’ve said all along that addressing the pressing issues facing our state starts with education,” Evers said in a statement. “We have to fully fund our public schools, and we have to make sure voucher schools are accountable and transparent, not just for kids and parents, but for Wisconsin taxpayers, too.”

Combined, the Milwaukee, Racine, statewide, and special needs voucher programs enroll about 40,000 students, who use taxpayer funds to attend private, mostly religious schools.  

The programs flourished under Evers’ predecessor, Gov. Scott Walker. Under his leadership, school choice extended beyond Milwaukee’s decades-old program for low-income students.

The newest of the choice programs is the Special Needs Scholarship Program, which provides public money for students with disabilities to attend private schools. The three-year-old program vexes public school leaders, who have struggled with flat special education funding for a decade.

Evers is seeking to end the Special Needs Scholarship Program by closing it to new students in 2021.

Saint Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee has about 800 students enrolled using regular or special needs vouchers. Superintendent Henry Tyson says the school already gets more applications than seats available.

“Clearly, if Evers wants to put a cap on new voucher seats, it means even more families will be denied the opportunity to have access to a great school,” Tyson said.

But he doesn’t think Evers’ vision will become a reality. The Republican-led Legislature is likely to block it. And, Tyson thinks families using choice programs will put up a strong fight if they do seem to be under threat.

Other voucher-related proposals Evers plans to introduce include:

  • Require schools in Special Needs Scholarship Program to allow students to opt out of religious activity.
  • Require schools participating in choice programs beginning in FY22 to be fully accredited instead of pre-accredited.
  • Require all teachers at schools participating in choice programs to be licensed by July 1, 2022.
  • Require information about the cost of choice programs on Wisconsin residents’ property tax bills.

Evers also wants to curb the spread of independent charter schools. He proposes curtailing the ability of universities and municipalities to authorize new charters.
That idea is also poised for an uphill battle in the Legislature.

Independent charter schools are public schools governed by private boards and usually staffed by non-union employees.

Evers and Republicans may be more likely to find compromise on enhancing funding for public schools. The governor wants to increase education spending by $1.4 billion.

This story has been updated following Evers' formal budget annoucement.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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