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Politics & Government

Wisconsin Budget Committee to Debate Voucher Expansion

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Gov. Walker's budget would eliminate the student cap for the statewide voucher program

Gov. Walker spent time in New Orleans Monday, touting plans to expand Wisconsin’s school voucher program. Tuesday, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee will debate his proposal.

While Wisconsin may open its voucher program to more students, not many other states are headed in that direction.

The City of Milwaukee has the longest-running school voucher program in the country. Twenty-five years ago, the state began giving low-income kids here taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for tuition at private, and later, religious schools. In the decades since, a few other voucher programs have popped up around the country, according to Doug Harris, economics professor and director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University.

Yet, Harris says, the voucher movement has failed to gain widespread public support.

“Because giving money to private schools gets into this separation of church and state issue and also into potential issues of profiteering and so on…But I think generally speaking people are more comfortable giving money to either nonprofit organizations or to organizations that have more public accountability,” Harris says.

Gov. Walker has made expanding vouchers a priority. He removed the enrollment cap for the Milwaukee program and opened it to wealthier families. Walker also created a statewide program, originally limiting it at 1,000 students. His new budget would eliminate the cap. Walker says parents know what’s best for their kids.

Harris says, overall, students in voucher schools and their counterparts in the public system perform about the same. That means in both sectors, there are some very successful schools and those that fail students.

“I think a lot of it goes back to this issue of which schools are students are really moving into and the idea that you can’t just paint public and private schools with a broad brush, that some are good and some aren’t and if you move students to a good school, they’re actually going to do better, but again, that’s not guaranteed,” Harris says.

Those who will fight the governor’s plan to expand vouchers in Wisconsin insist they hurt public schools, by capturing state aid and leaving behind the toughest students to educate.

Harris says in most of the country, advocates of offering students alternatives to public schools have focused on promoting charters. Those are public schools chartered by agencies – sometimes even the public district, but operate independently.

Harris says charter programs in Boston and New Orleans have shown impressive results.

“I think the kinds of effects you’re seeing in at least those two locations is more positive than anything we’ve ever seen with vouchers, so it’s another suggestion that public oversight may be a useful element here,” Harris says.

The Legislature’s budget committee Tuesday will debate a host of K-12 issues, including vouchers and funding for public schools.

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